A conversation with Houston-based artist Angel Lartigue about the use of scientific methods in performance art and about the relationship between the land of South Texas and her own body, as well as other’s.
Angel Lartigue’s art practice thus far has been brief (about five years), but it’s also very rich. We sit down to talk about the ways in which the land of South Texas that’s so connected to death and the death of migrants specifically, beckoned her. There she begins to finds ways to resurrect the dead by using scientific methods that help to highlight life among the dead. This process further expands to unlikely places like the night club, as well as galleries and other performance spaces.
This Episode was Mixed and Mastered by Jared Marxuach, Kate Whitmer and Amanda Willis
- Angel LartigueCuratorial and Artistic Researcher
- Laura G. GutiérrezAssociate Professor of Mexican American and Latinx Studies at The University of Texas at Austin
Intro: You’re listening to Latinxperts, a podcast of Latino Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Latinxperts features the voices of faculty, staff, and students, as well as friends and alumni of the department of Mexican American and Latina/ Latino Studies, the Latino Research Institute and the Center for Mexican American Studies.
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Laura Gutierrez: Hello. Hello. Good morning, Angel.
Angel: Good morning.
Karma Chavez: For those of you, wherever or whenever you’re listening to, we are recording in the studio on a Monday. No, it’s not a Monday morning.
It’s a Wednesday
Angel: a Wednesday,
Karma Chavez: It’s a Wednesday morning. Apologies. Not caffeinated enough but I am here. It is my ultimate pleasure to be here in the studio with Angel Lartigue. A Houston based artist who has been very busy in the last five years. Despite the pandemic, doing what I think is extraordinary work, that brings in the sciences, among other things that we’re going to get into today. Angel, I don’t know if you want to say anything else about your bio for the audience.
Angel: No, that’s interesting how you say five years. I can’t believe it’s been five years that I started making work, well, into serious matter showing in different places.
I’m from born and raised in Houston, so I’m a Texas girl. But recently I’ve been kind of around. I was doing a residency in Australia. I was in living in Mexico City for a short time. And I just got back from L.A. participating in a group exhibition there in the Roski School of Art and Design. Which was an amazing performance piece that I did I’m so proud of. But I just got back. I also just finished another project at DiverseWorks in Houston like a week ago. And it was also very performance-based. So yeah, there’s a lot of things that have been moving around.
Karma Chavez: Yeah, I know within just the last year, maybe the last two years, at the same time that we’ve been in this pandemic moment. You’ve been producing work that I imagine encapsulates so much of what you were already doing. Right. Thinking about the way that we are so affected by our coming into consciousness about viruses and bacteria around us. Right.
So that’s actually why I invited you to talk about. Not to talk about COVID or anything like that, but to talk about the ways in which you see matter. The importance of matter, whether it’s land or the living organisms in the land and how that has structured so much of your work.
So I was wondering if you can start us off by talking about the importance of land in your work and how that is then translated into different spaces.
I do want to talk about one of my earliest pieces. I always go back to these pieces. It was early performance works that I’ve started doing in 2014 or 2015. There was one video performance piece where this was shot in Galveston.
I think my mother actually shot this video. She went with me. It’s so funny because I just got done doing a piece in DiverseWorks and my mother participated in that performance piece, for the first time. And so now that I’m talking about this early, early piece, she actually shot the video for it.
I totally forgot.
It’s a piece where I walk. It’s a very foggy day in Galveston, the shores, the coastal shore. And it’s this very slow piece where I slowly walk into the ocean and kind of disappear within the fog that’s around there. That was one of the earliest pieces I did really thinking about how the environment can take shape. in the piece of work, specifically performance. From there, I started to really think about the terrain as a landscape that affects my work. So the next piece would be called “Self Portraits As I Were Dead.” And this a series of self portraits taken through my iPhone. It’s a double exposure where you see myself doubled in the same frame.
I digitally manipulated that in Photoshop after I took the two shots and one is one body is laid on the ground naked and the other body is dressed in black, looking at the other body. So I’m sort of looking at myself as I were dead in other words.
And I shot decent different locations within Houston. And then within the year time span, I started to go into South Texas and taking that series there. I would use the cotton fields, the coastal ocean as the landscape, and really thinking about how the body is laid and in contact on the land. And it’s a hybrid of a landscape portraiture. And so that was the earliest times that I started to really think about the land and how the body is in contact with the land.
And I think that foreshadows a lot of the work that I’ve been doing recently.
Karma Chavez: Yeah. That’s one of the things that I really love and appreciate about your work. Often we think within performance, oh, it’s a site-specific performance, right? And sometimes I feel that gets lost because we don’t, we could mean so many things, but it can also lose the importance of relation between the body and the land.
And you’re so intentional about making sure that that relationship is felt
Angel: Since the beginning.
And it’s funny because I would thought of those early pieces as performance, but there wasn’t really an audience. I was doing it for myself in this very self reflective, they’re almost like little notes to myself, but in image form.
And I was like, there’s nobody going to see me doing these performances. And this is very much for myself and my own study of my body and the land.
Karma Chavez: That’s interesting. So they do predate, but also prefigure. They’re performative if they’re not performances in the way that we understand performances because of the absence of audience, but they do prefigure the work that you did with, the performances of “Science at the Club.”
Right. And I was wondering if you can talk about those performances Science at the Club.
Angel: Yeah, yeah. That whole era. Oh my God. That was like pre- COVID era. And it was a different time now. I haven’t done a performance at a club since the pandemic. Of course, a lot of things have changed. I think things are starting to get kind of back on how they were. But a lot of those underground scenes, particularly in Houston, the organizers of these parties and DJs and artists that were contributing to this nightclub scene, dispersed after the pandemic.
So it’s interesting to think about that work before COVID and how I started that work. Since early on, I had an interest in things like science and art, for instance, the bio art movement, which was this movement in the 1990s where a lot artists started to integrate scientific processes into works of art. Which very much required a laboratory in order to do that back in the day and the acess of having a biological laboratory.
And in my case having to grow up after that movement you saw the club as a space where I could use it as my own laboratory and very experimental. And so one of the first pieces, it’s called a sub scientist piece, which is this alias that has stuck onto me since the sub scientist.
And it’s a sort of a combination of a submissive scientist. So it was a piece where I extracted people’s DNA from their saliva using salt and water in a club setting. And it was this communal exchange between my extracted DNA in a vial and their extracted DNA and a vial. We sort of swapped it and it took less than five minutes.
So it was very quick. And at the same time I was chained up against the wall. It had this very BDSM aesthetic look to it. Hence the sub scientist and those, this idea of making the figure of the scientist as a very submissive body to the audience. In our culture, we think of scientists as very high hierarchical beings. And in this case, I wanted to bring science into this level of the club and also a very queer and trans club space and what it means for queer and trans bodies to handle things like biological matter, like DNA, like what does this mean for queer and trans people?
DNA is very dominant in it’s CIS patriarchal, hegemonic, ways of reproducing, et cetera. For queer and trans people, we handle biological matter in a different way. And I wanted to see how it would be in the club space, where it’s like our own laboratory, where we create our own knowledge. That was the start of the Science at the Club.
Karma Chavez: That’s great! Thank you for doing that elaborate description. I also encourage the listeners to first, the name that has stuck onto you. sub_scientist is the ways in which you can find Angel on Instagram. That’s your handle
Angel: @sub _ scientist
Laura Gutierrez: Yeah. And also, listener you should look at the material that Angel has archived for the sub scientist performance that she was describing, but also all of the other pieces that we’re going to talk about and those that we won’t get a chance to talk about cause there’s quite a lot of material there and all of this, you can find links on the show notes.
Karma Chavez: The website is going to be linked there. See it for yourselves. And not just hear it. Or maybe that’s fine. You got enough, can visualize however you want.
So this is the first performance when you start to think about, science at the club, but I know that there are at least two more performances and also are Where Science Meets the Club
Angel: Again! For three times. It was a trilogy. It’s the trilogy performance it’s how I describe it. And like I said, I wrote this essay that was part of this science and art conference. It’s called Taboo – Transgression – Transcendence. It was in 2020. It happened in Vienna, Austria. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go because of the pandemic. So everything was online, but part of the conference was me writing an essay and trying to process these three performances, these three trilogy performances. And create this paradigm or conversation on those performances.
The next two have a lot to do with the land, how you were talking. The next one would be called operation psychopomp, which is a very different trajectory of my work. It was the next year. And at this time I was going down to South Texas, particularly in a town called Falfurrias and I was getting involved with what was going down there.
Particularly the South Texas Human Rights Center, which is a nonprofit organization headed by Eddie Canales. Who’s a grassroots organizers since the seventies. Getting involved with him and his project, a water station project that prevents the deaths of migrants in that area by installing water stations on private lands.
So getting involved there, and how my work took me there is very interesting. I think it had to do in 2018 when my grandfather passed away. And knowing that his brother disappeared in an attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. So it brought me to that area.
And I started to create works out of the land there. Burial site material, mud, clay. And that’s how I got involved with the forensic anthropology center. I took training courses in human remains recovery and human decomposition. So it was a breaking point in my projects.
There was a lot of absorption of science, but also in relation to the land and the body and the processes of the body. And I integrated that into my art work. That’s how this next performance, OPERATION PSYCHOPOMP came to be. I brought together a team of family and friends and dress them in hazmat suits.
And they all went in the club. They brought burial site material from South Texas and dumped it on the dance floor. It was a combination of clay, dirt, vulture feathers that I picked up from down there. My friend Farrah Fang, who’s a very good poet and artists, Houston based. She wore a garment that I made out of 104 Petri dishes. To those who don’t know what Petri dishes are.
They’re these little circular plates and they have a nutrient inside that allows bacteria to grow. And so the bacteria that grew on these Petri dishes were bacteria and fungi that I collected from my studies in human remains recovery and human decomposition. I made a whole garment out of it and she wore it and went into the club as well.
It was one of the most breaking performances of my work. A lot of elements into it.
Karma Chavez: Yeah, I find that particular performance. Oh, also by the way, listener, the essay the angel was referring to, you can also find it on the website. It’s there for you. Everything’s on the website as well as material about this last performance. And I really am moved by the way that you described then, and walked us through.
Particularly because the nightclub then becomes this space where, through the garment there is a coming into life or growing out of something that was dead or perceived to be dead.
But you awaken it and I think I find that to be moving in addition to the visuals and the whole aesthetic, which I’m really drawn to.
Angel: That piece was just, there’s a lot going on in comparison to the sub scientist piece.
I think what the sub scientist performance brought in was the scientific processes into the club and then Operation Psychopomp really expanded it and made it, I would say, political. It involved South Texas. What is going on down there and using the land and bringing the fabric of the land into the nightclub and the Petri dishes.
The technology that a lot of bio scientists use into the club space and bringing all that energy into there. The piece was titled operation psychopomp, which was a play on the forensic anthropologists operation, which is titled operation identification. That operation is held down in South Texas. It is the exhumation of unidentified burial sites of migrant the bodies that have been buried there. I give them an identification and this is operation held by Texas State University in San Marcos. It’s a very rigorous program there.
And that’s the program that I went to have this forensic training that I had for a summer. It involves all that so it’s a very heavy piece. South Texas still haunts me.
Karma Chavez: Yeah. I mean, you went there because there was the fact that your grandfather’s brother has disappeared. So the ways in which he continues to disappear is hunting.
Angel: I’m not from South Texas. I was born here in Houston and I don’t have family in South Texas. I was brought down there because of that narrative, which is how a lot of families are brought down to south Texas. When they’re looking for their loved ones who have disappeared.
It’s this very elusive entity. Particularly in Falfurrias, it’s a town that has haunted a lot of my pieces until even my recent piece.
Karma Chavez: Can you tell us about that recent piece?
Angel: Yeah. So last week, I think it was a week or two ago, the project in DiverseWorks. I was part of a group exhibition there and symposium curated by Ashley Dehoyos called “Overlapping Territories.” My contribution to that group exhibition was an installation of a shrine in Falfurrias dedicated to the 1800’s curandero Don Pedro Jaramillo who was famous to heal with water.
And he used water as its very important element, in his communal practice. And that was the first site that I went to when I first started to go down to South Texas, like years ago. It’s a very old shrine. There’s lots of statues of him in there.
People go in there leave photographs, light candles. There’s also a water station behind the shrine built by the South Texas Human Rights Center. Which I find very interesting because the water station has gallons of waters for migrants to take and drink. Also in case anyone doesn’t know most of the deaths of migrants in that area is because of dehydration because of the harsh South Texas sun. So water still plays this element in the town, versus how in the 1800’s, how Don Pedro used to use it.
So my installation was a performance based in the site there and it was like a cleansing of all the work that I’d done in South Texas.
I took this opportunity to, again, cleanse all that energy that I have picked up. I don’t know if it’s called closing a chapter in this era of work, but I felt it was important to use Don Pedro Jaramillo’s water and those elements and those ideas in this performance. Because it’s like a cyclical thing. It closes.
. And the fact that he was curandero in the performance, it was I captured video in the performance. My friend Tere Garcia, who’s also another artist who has been helping me in a lot of my projects, captured the video in the site and I created a short film that was presented in Diverse Works in Houston.
That was also a performance at the same time. That was the cleansing of that era of work for me. Which was very important.
A lot of my work has a lot to do with rituals and picking up energies from locations and sites because the land always has energy and sometimes you pick up things and sometimes it latches onto you without you even knowing. Just like everything, it could be good, or it could be bad for you. And I think we need rituals for us to process those things, whether it’s a cleansing or just the self-reflection, but that has a lot to do with my work.
Laura Gutierrez: I find that beautiful the way that you returned to that site and that land and that landscape to reflect on it. And what it’s meant for you these last five or so years. And you don’t know if it’s a circle coming to a close, it is cyclical for sure.
Our approach to time it’s cyclical. So perhaps being more open and thinking of it as spiral, right. It’s like a necessity to go back and reflect on what that’s meant for you in the past and what it means for you now. And also to do that ritual that you said, which I completely agree it’s very necessary, but then to move on with now having fully closed a chapter. Gain from what you learned and what you did and carry it forward with you.
Angel: That’s interesting that you said spiral, because one of my other projects that I’ve seen created involving in Falfurrias is a project called Cenote, which is very much of a spiral, you know?
It was a project named after Gloria Anzaldua’s conception of what a Cenote meant for her. Cenote it is a hole in the land that’s connected to groundwater and it’s connected through all these various underground tunnels. And for her, it was a way to connect a lot of ideas in how they would clash and spiral on their own.
So I named this project Cenote. As I was going down there to South Texas, I realized I was collaborating with a lot of different people and having conversations with different artists, writers, activists, and in the center of the town of Falfurrias. And I decided to make artists residency / collective/ network of artists, involving the town.
And most of these were my friends and some of these were people that I thought were interested in going down to South Texas and staying like a week or so, a couple of days in Falfurrias. And that’s what I did with this project. I really loved bringing other artists and collaborating and in acting these conversations about what is South Texas? What is the land and what is going on down there and visiting the sites that are important to me. The Don Pedro Jaramillo shrine, the Sacred Heart Cemetery, it’s the cemetery of Falfurrias but it’s also the site where many unidentified, mass graves were exhumed and also the South Texas Human Rights Center is there.
And so we have a lot of these sites that I like to bring people in and an artist, in particular to have. These conversations about land, about migration, about all these things that are merging within this weird quiet town in South Texas. And that’s what I described it as Cenote.
Karma Chavez: Wow. I really liked the way that so much of what I was thinking as you were describing your previous project led you to talk about Cenote because I hadn’t intended you to talk about it, but I actually think it’s really important for you to also highlight that work. Because I think that the idea first of a residency in this town, but also the way that you bring together people that would otherwise being conversation. I find that very powerful and I think, a sign of, at least for me, the work that I’m interested in seeing, right.
It’s work that’s meaningful for different people and for different reasons and your work really does that. And that’s why I’ve been following you since sub scientists.
But yeah, I think we’re at time, unfortunately we could keep talking about, but listeners, please do visit angels website.
Angel: I archive everything I’m of the social media generation. So I grew up with the internet, So I see my website as its own art piece, and I take a lot of time to create it.
You could find my website at www. Angel- dash lartigue (L A R T I G U E) .com.
Karma Chavez: Yes. Spend some time with it, sit with it, reflect and enjoy as well. All right. Thank you so much, angel.
Angel: Thank you very much for bringing me.
Karma Chavez: Bye.
Outro: This is Ashley. the communications associate at Latino Studies. Thank you for listening to this week’s episode, make sure to check out the Latino studies, Instagram page. Follow us @LatinoStudiestUT to keep the conversation going.