Alberto Aguilar Interview
by: Karla Hernandez and Sam Ludwig
Alberto Aguilar came to the Kansas City Art Institute on October 1st to give a lecture in conjunction with his show premiering Chicago Latino artists at Garcia Squared run by Israel Garcia Garcia. We asked him to do an interview with us in order to discuss his body of work in relation to themes involving play, community, and vague rebellions. Our time
with him was spent getting to know his practice and the importance of community through his engagements with the school, Kansas City, and even a barbecue. During these interactions many of our questions concerning his practice were answered, allowing us to further unpack these topics in this interview. Our conversation was more successful than we expected, sending us into the depths of what it means to be an artist within a community, a culture, and the 21st century.
KARLA HERNANDEZ: How does the shift between the interiors and the gallery setting enforce the purpose of your different mediums?
ALBERTO AGUILAR: It’s a different experience when I go into somebody’s house to make something… I try to be more social even though it goes against my brain, so I try to be more friendly and of course, I try to hear the stories that they have to tell me as we go
through the house… I think in a way that makes me more sensitive to a person, where if I do it in a gallery space or museum space… but I think more generally. For instance at MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] I had to really think about how it would be fool-proof and I had to think about how people interact with it… When it’s a public space or an art space or a gallery space I have to really think wider. The other thing is these monuments aren’t attached in any way at all [not] in the person’s home or in the gallery so that’s another thing I have to think about - how that’s going to be affected in the art space. Where the thing I make in someone’s home, I make it and I take a picture, and that’s
it - it exists in the picture. Well, they become something different for sure. They become…they have a different presence in the gallery space. It looses some of the personal-ness that it has inside the home. It is a monument that stands alone but it speaks to all the other objects
that are captured in the home or the picture. The ones in a space speak more of art, and then of course, I have to think about how it relates to the other monuments that are in the space- there were 12 at Amherst… - so I had to think about how they spoke to one another…I think of them as personas - like little robots or they have a sort of a human
presence in their own right…… I just did one in the home [and] I was thinking that I should have showed you guys - not just you guys but other people - brought you up to see the one that I made because, it was a very interesting process. Right now it’s in the gallery, but when everyone was over, the house, it was still upstairs. The process was really different and interesting because I got to that house the day that I got into Kansas City… The house was very messy. We’ve dealt with this before. When we got in, it was sort of jarring because the house was all dusty and lady was kind of, not a hoarder, but she collected a lot of
knick-knacks and stuff, so when we got in we were a little disturbed… I was a little disturbed I went right into looking for [objects], because I knew I was going to make a monument… Even though I was driving 8 hours and I was exhausted, I went right into looking for the objects I might use… From that time [the time we arrived], when I was not
mentally all there, four days later, I installed it into the art space. It has changed and shifted, and I kept adding to it and taking away, so what’s in the gallery, I think it’s interesting because it’s not just this woman’s stuff, but it’s this woman’s stuff and on top of this it’s my thought process of how to funnel down. How to make something; to edit down to what’s in the gallery now. And in this case she wasn’t there, and usually the
person is there, so it was also much more invasive. I think that I could really dig into her hings.
SAMANTHA LUDWIG: Did she know that you were going to do that?
AA: I think Israel told her, yeah. I’m not sure that she knows exactly what he was talking about.
SL: What do you think her reaction would be seeing it finished?
AA: What usually happens is that people, even people who don’t know a lot about art, they
are excited about the end result because there are connections made that they didn’t
otherwise see. It’s kinda a complex one… This one is more on the confusing side from
incorporating so many objects, so I think that she’ll be amazed when she sees it. I think I
must have made some connections, because I took from all the rooms of the house.
KH: You said that they stand for figures, do you think they serve as proxies for the figures
or people you are utilizing objects from?
AA: Yeah… I think that they’re family overall or a family emblem, or as you said a proxy
for the family. And I heard stories too, and those always affect my choices in some ways. I
was looking at her pictures and supposedly her husband died of cancer, and then Israel
told us that her first grandson had died… on his graduation day from high school. Yeah, so,
all these things I feel like they affect, even if it’s in a subtle way, the choices that I make.
Not in a very direct way, but I think it affects them for sure.
SL: How do you see the audience perceiving relationships captured within your video
work? How do you see the audience perceiving your intimate relationships and in an
intimate manner since it’s often on your iPhone?
AA: And its on social media a lot of times too. It’s hard to say. I think it’s better to ask you…
How do you respond to seeing those things?
SL: They’re really intriguing in that they are so personal, and I think that’s interesting
because within the art space, or at least within an institution like this [Kansas City Art
Institute], the personal isn’t often acknowledged. We’re trained to disconnect. It’s all about
the white cube, so pushing that line creates personal work that is difficult to analyze as an
artwork, but I kind of enjoy that at the same time. That’s really an intervention on the
entire tradition of art making.
AA: Yeah, and are you speaking of something specifically that you saw?
SL: I know there are a couple where your children are playing music, and your children
using the bells, and I know that connects to your later work, but thinking about those as
their own individual pieces.
AA: I would say that it’s funny because I don’t even think about that anymore. I guess I am
done thinking of those things as such separate entities, so for me I have no doubt that I’m
making art… Maybe I do ask myself, “Is this too personal?” There are things I would never
disclose or I hold back from showing. So, yeah they might be personal like, I don’t really
show my wife too often, especially in video. Sometimes she’ll get captured in something. I
did this one [video] where I did exercises with my chairs with holes in them, and she
walked past and that was accidental, but for the most part I don’t really - not exploit - but I
don’t include her and part of that is maybe because she doesn’t like that. I don’t want that
weirdness to exist. With the kids, they’re so used to it because it has been around them all
their lives, that they can act like themselves in front of the camera.
SL: Do you ever think of your video work as an intervention within a gallery space, or was
it purely a reaction to your living situation?
AA: Yes, it comes naturally, but I’m thinking about the thing I did recently at the MCA.
That’s a sort of intervention on the normal ways things are displayed at the museum or
the normal ways that people are allowed to interact with [art]. It’s taking those very
personal things like that bell game and bringing it into the public sphere. But, yeah, maybe
it started off as me thinking of it as an intervention, but I don’t think I think of that too
much. I don’t because I mostly put those videos on in the social media; I don’t show them
too often in galleries. I showed the bell game before in an art space. I showed the one of
me working out, but I’m also just interested in letting those things exist as social media
interventions, so maybe there I do. It’s also a response to the work in the white cube, but I
think more than anything it’s a response to what could be shared on social media. People
would share things and sometimes they get really personal, and I think that’s personal
that people that you don’t know share, and nothing is wrong with it - they choose to share
- but I feel my stuff is not that personal. I feel that there is some detached-ness even
though it’s my home and there’s something about it that I feel is not so personal, it’s
KH: Can you address the specific function of play throughout your work?
AA: When I was at SAIC (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) I was a very
serious artist and I didn’t like talking too much, to people even. I just liked working in my
studio, and I didn’t like criticism from teachers; it was hard for me. When I started I had a
set idea, and I was very traditional in many senses. I sorta created this traditional mode of
working for myself, because at SAIC I would say… I wasn’t too playful when I went there. I
think in painting you always tell yourself little jokes while you’re painting, but they were
too little to even detect as jokes and they probably weren’t even that funny…When I first
started art making [it] was such a serious endeavor and I think I’ve reached a point
where, I think it was in teaching. I started teaching this mural painting class where we
actually painted a mural in public spaces. I started to realize that the funnest part of that
mural painting class was when we were hanging out. When we were hanging out some
woman invited us to her house to have breakfast. As we were preparing to come up with
an idea for the mural, I started telling my students that I was interested in this hanging
out. They probably didn’t know what I was talking about, because they weren’t in art
student mode, but I had told them that I’m kind of interested in the hanging out. That
[hanging out] is actually the final product because the final product in the end actually
looked like a student mural that was guided by an artist that kind of had an idea of what
he was doing, but it was still read as a student mural. I told them that I was interested in
proposing this class that was all about hanging out, and I think that’s when I started to
realize that play is when the messing around, when the teasing, when the joking, when the
really personal stuff happens, and when people get to know each other and you know in
the end there is crying…. So I started working with youth, and I took the call that I put out
for myself that instead of making a product we would just play and we would let whatever
merge out of that play be the work. I was part of this residency when they paired me up
with youth and that’s what I did. We actually called ourselves “Interruptions” and our
main artwork was that we created interventions…For instance, we did a performance in a
coffee shop out in the public when we would act like we didn’t know each other and all go
into a separate place in the cafe. We would just do weird behaviors, and we would
choreograph this weird behavior so that people would try to figure out what was going
on. So that was sort of the beginning of the play. Now, I incorporate that into my
classrooms all the time because that’s what I’m interested in. So I would say that play is
very important to my work because I feel that that is where the most interesting ideas are
generated and for me that is when art is most exciting. When you play something larger
maybe and more universal, something more potent will come fourth in the end, and you
learn too, and that’s the weird thing, is that there is a learning aspect to play.
SL: So is that where your work began making these scenarios such as your dinners and
going out into other people homes and working with them?
AA: Yeah, it came from that. And I started to bring it into my own work and eventually I’ve
been doing it [for] so long that it’s a normal part of my practice that I don’t even realize. I
just assume everybody does it. It came from this progression that my work took, so it
came from being out of school, teaching, starting to question the function of the studio,
starting to question the accessibility of art to the general public.
I taught art appreciation a lot coming out of graduate school, and one of the things
I became really aware of is that there is a huge disconnect between the contemporary art
practice and people who didn’t have an art background… I think that play is an easy way
to to help people understand things…
SL: Speaking of the general public, it is common to hear someone ask how a piece is
important or why it is art/ why it is better than anything one could do themselves. Are
you ever worried that the general public will misunderstand the difference between
artwork and just pure play?
AA: What’s funny is that I feel like they do understand. Like say my thing at the MCA, I feel
that they understand it immediately. And whether or not they understand it as art I think
is the only important thing… I mean, there’s a reason why they are captivated by it in the
first place. There is something inside of us that wants, that desires to interact with stuff. So
right when they see it, they’ll go towards it and they’ll start interacting with it. And I think
once they’re interacting with it, that’s the time they can figure out for themselves. Why is
this art? Is this art? Could art be fun? Am I getting anything deeper than just fun from this?
And, yeah, I think in the end, yes they do. Because it’s not just about having fun, it’s also
about seeing things in new light and I think that that’s one of the main functions of art. It’s
what I try to teach in art appreciation… I’m trying to teach them not to take things for
granted, even in daily existence. So that for me that’s a bigger goal than teaching them
how to look at art. Because, I think if they are more sensitive to the world, they are going
to be more sensitive to an art world. So, yeah, play for me is a way of learning and
KH: What’s the importance of community within your work?
AA: Community is another thing that I was not really into when I was in art school. Like I
said, I wanted to be alone, I wanted to be in the studio. I thought that’s what being an
artist meant, being alone. I think that I was alone for a good amount of time just being in
my studio and working. And there was one point, it was about one o’clock in the morning,
two o’clock in the morning, I was washing my brushes, I was still in art school, and I said
to myself, “So this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to be alone. Like
most of the time, I’m going to be alone”. I think that was the first time. I kinda said, ” Okay.
Well, yeah, I accept it.” But I think it was the first time I started to question it. You know,
like why does one need to be alone all the time to make work? I realized that that was the
most fun part, it wasn’t about the end result, like the mural, it was more about the
interaction that took place in the making of that mural. So then I started to realize that that
was important and that was more fun than being alone… I could be even more productive.
When you’re alone, yeah you make these objects and it just stops right there. But when
you include other people, I think your objects or the things that you make have more life,
have other lives… Even the Mini-Van Booth. I was the one covering the minivan with the
paper. And that was my main function. But that was only one part of Mini-Van Booth, the
second part was including all the programing that happened on the backside of it. So these
other lives… would change every hour with the changing of the person inside of the
mini-van, or the same thing at the MCA. I created this installation but now it has this
second life where people actually interact with it, and then it has this third life where artist
come and they intervene on the different surfaces.
And even you know Jim, when he said at the end [of a barbecue] “This is what it’s
all about”. And now this guy, [Jim Woodfill] who teaches painting, he’s saying this is what
it’s all about. It’s all about community, it’s all about exchange, and it’s all about having all
these feelings, having a nostalgic night. And it’s funny because those are the things when I
was in art school, they would teach against, like bringing feelings and emotions into things.
I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in art school that sort of thing was looked
down upon. I was making these sort of romantic paintings of a man and a woman kissing.
And it was around the time I first met my wife while I was in undergrad, and I had a
teacher who said, “Why do you always try to make artworks about feelings?”, he said,
“You know when you get older you just feel.” I think it’s weird that we do that. Even I do
that as a teacher, you try to get people not to bring these corny feelings into their artwork.
When Jim said, “This is what it’s all about,” he’s also talking about the view to the city, the
fire, my daughter playing the thing, like all of those things are kind of about reverie, and
nostalgia. Right? Memories, making something memorable, making something last in your
mind. That’s what an artwork should do. A good artwork should linger in your mind. Like
when you go to a museum you see something and then you just can’t get it out of your
head, the experience of interacting with it, being in front of it.
KH: How do the objects or situations utilize or create conversations in which the
mundane and everyday are universal?
AA: I’ll speak to that with my songs that I make… I make up these songs. And I’m sure
you guys do. People make up songs sometimes… I always have but I think once I had kids I
do that more, and there was a time where I was running a bath for my kids and our real
estate person was called, Aleese Burger, and I was making a song about her. I mean that’s
an easy name to make a song about. My artist friend was waiting at the house, we were
part of this residency together, he was outside of the bathroom and he heard this song.
He said, “That song is so funny you should record those songs. You should record it.” And
when he said that, I realized that I should start because I made songs all the time. I should
record these songs instead of just letting them disappear. Because usually those songs
you make, they come and they go, so I started recording all these songs that I created. So
whenever I would make one up I had this tape recorder that I would go on and record. I
still have this collection of songs and I called them “house music”: “house music one” and
“house music two” and “house music three”. They are just sort of a selection of the songs
that I had on my tape recorder. At first I was thinking, “Should I just re record them?” I
recorded them on tape I had one of those cheap tape cassette recorders, so I was thinking
about how I was going to transfer them into a digital form. So, I was starting to re-record
them into Garageband and then I realized that it just didn’t feel the same. There was
something nice about the momentary quality of them. My kids were always screaming in
the back. I just started to record them straight from the tape recorder. My point of all this
is, in the end when you listen to these songs they are all sort of silly sometimes.
Sometimes they’re funny, but there’s something so universal about them. More as a whole
because you kind of see my different emotions and the things that I’m thinking about.
Some of them happen to be about death, or about you know, even though they are kids’
songs, they are about death or loss, or things that we experience as human beings. Like
going poo, going pee. They’re about all these things that we go through as human beings
in what I realize in the end was that they have such a universal quality to them… They
come straight out of the everyday existence, but there is something very universal about
them, that way when you hear them you connect to them and you laugh but you all still
think about death and existence and the passing of time… I say to myself “Wow! There’s
something more to these even though they came right out of my daily existence’’.
KH: How does family and the role that family plays in your specific culture, by that I
mean being in Chicago, it’s history, and being Mexican, how big of a role does your culture
play in your work?
AA: I think they all play a huge part…I’m very, very proud of being in Chicago. I’m very
proud of being Mexican. I’m super proud of these things, but at the same time I try not
to…exploit…those things. For instance, this show that we are having here is about Latino
artists. I really wanted to make sure with the artists that I chose that nobody addressed
these things in a very typical way. That, yeah, it’s okay that they come out, but not in such
obvious ways. There’s a museum in Chicago - it’s the biggest Mexican art museum in all of
the United States, and they just show the typical stuff, you know, they do the whole Day of
the Dead thing. There’s these things that cultural institutions do, and they feel that they
need to do that. I’m not interested in that. I sort of want to, through my work, destroy or
turn them on their head. I feel like I’m having a slight conflict with Israel, who runs this
gallery space, because in a way I feel that I don’t want to do that. Yes we are Chicago
artists, yes we are Latino, but I don’t want it to be a show that you walk into and say, “Oh
look at this, this is group of Latino artists.” I want them to see the work first and then let
that part of it come up slowly. I think it has a big part in my work. That it is related to
including of my family, I don’t know exactly how, but I think my heritage, my cultural
background has a lot to do with how I sort of include everything as a whole. And it could
be related to this thing they say about Mexicans “They always put things off till
tomorrow”. (LAUGHING) You know I love leisure, and I think I talked about it in the
lecture, this idea of not having to do something without having to actually do it. Maybe
that comes off as lazy to people, just that I did this installation at the MCA and so many
people were involved in the production of it where I didn’t really have to do much work.
What did I just call it?
AA: Yeah. Are you guys familiar with Gabriel Orozco? He was one artist that really
impacted me from the get go. His work is all about destroying those boundaries between
leisure time and work time, play time and studio time. And his work was really influential. I
saw the Art21 segment, which I recommend of his. He was probably in the first season
and he talked about the studio as a bubble: a bubble that was secluded from the world,
and all of these things that he said really spoke to me, and it could be my Mexicanness that
connected to it. I think it comes mostly from my parents - this idea of being a kind of
family oriented guy. It comes from my upbringing more than anything. I think that could
be any culture. All cultures have that in some aspect. A sense of a family.