Yoshua Okón, Octopus, 2011, video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

A policeman twirls his baton like a cheerleader. Groups of men crawl on their stomachs, combat-style, across a Home Depot parking lot. Two white pickups careen around in circles, their drivers firing guns into the desert.

Yoshua Okón’s videos, which feature topics like police brutality, the Guatemalan Civil War and U.S. anti-immigrant protests, are both riveting and difficult to watch. Juxtapositions of eroticism and violence; guerilla warfare and suburbia; and xenophobia and nationalism provoke church-like silences, gasps and awkward laughs from viewers.

At a recent Artist’s Talk at Artpace, Okón shared portions from three of his pieces: Oríllese a la Orilla (1999-2000); Octopus (2011), see above; and Oracle (2015).

Yoshua Okón, Oracle, 2015, video still. Image courtesy of the artist.
Yoshua Okón, Oracle, 2015, video still. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Okón is an artist, not a curator, but he is in town to select the artists for Artpace’s Summer, 2017 International Artist in Residency Program (IAIR). Since its inception in 1995, Artpace has invited guest curators to select the Texan, national and international artists for their seasonal, two-month residencies.

Yet, while serving as interim director before Artpace’s new Executive Director Veronique Le Melle took over last January, Sue Graze selected artists to be the 2017 curators.

“It was clear to me this was a needed change outside the prescriptive historic formula,” said Graze, noting that her intentions were “not for every residency, but a rethinking to begin.

“Curatorial practice is now porous, just like everything else,” Graze said. She also selected artists Michelle Grabner (Spring, 2017) and Michael Smith (Fall, 2017).

“The three artists I chose have curated exhibitions, founded artist spaces and alternative schools, been involved in multi-layered collaborations and teach,” Graze said. She also selected these artists because they were “interested in big thinking and processing,” and because “they also have very active international professional careers, the kind of sustaining careers Artpace resident artists aspire to and work toward.”

Okón, a practicing artist and teacher based in Mexico City, promises a fresh perspective. He is the founder of SOMA, a non-accredited art school in Mexico City that offers two-year programs in a post-graduate style of curriculum and connects students with other artists, curators, and theorists. Rather than an emphasis on the art’s media, SOMA stresses the importance of critical thinking.

When he started his career in in the ’90s, the galleries were “mostly showing abstract art that didn’t relate to the surrounding social situations,”  Okón said. There was an alienation and disconnection from reality that inspired Okón and other artists to open their own, artist-run spaces.

Artpace’s Executive Director Veronique Le Melle (left) speaks with artist Yoshua Oko?n. Photo courtesy of Artpace.
Artpace’s Executive Director Veronique Le Melle (left) speaks with artist Yoshua Oko?n. Photo courtesy of Artpace.

Okón exhibits his multi-channel synchronized video installations in specially built rooms; the design of the space affects how viewers experience his videos. With regular people — non-actors — in his videos, he walks the line between documentary and screenplay, covering specific subjects of his interest while allowing for the surprise of improvisation. Okón stages scenes with a camera yet without a script, which creates what he describes as “the tension between fiction and reality.”

The driving force of his work is the concept of perception.

“It’s important for viewers to ask the questions of if it’s real or staged; to be aware of the image and how it’s constructed, Okón said. “Our notions of reality are inherited, mostly, which makes us rethink” what we’re looking at.

Though he stays off-screen, his engaged presence remains evident through the content. Before filming, he interacts and dialogues with his subjects with an openness that results in their distinct candidness, authenticity and vulnerability. While actors may strive for the suspension of disbelief, Okón’s non-actors, because of the documentary aspects of his projects, may simply be themselves, though sometimes in an amped-up, performative manner.

For Oríllese a la Orilla, Okón asked on-duty policemen in Mexico City to come back to his studio and participate in a staged fight with him. Yet despite the violence and aggression they exhibited, Okón said, the experience allowed for him to “see a more humanized perspective” of them.

In the case of Oracle, Okón filmed the nationalist-driven groups who were protesting the immigration of Central American children. Though he didn’t agree with them on many issues, he focused on what they did agree on.

“They’re angry,” Okón said. “They feel the government works for corporations, not people anymore.” It was his idea to film them driving in their trucks, but he had no idea that they would drive in circles, firing guns.

In Octopus, ex-guerilla fighters from the Guatemalan Civil War reenact combat scenes in a Los Angeles Home Depot parking lot. Piled onto a lumber cart, they fake pointing guns and making shots. They play dead on the parking lot while customers walk by with barely a glance.

Okón, who filmed from inside a car, said these scenes reinforced how these people are treated. They are undocumented workers available for hire in the parking lots for day labor, yet they remain invisible, “human beings treated as ghosts,” Okón said.

Every year, Artpace holds a Texas Open Call for artists and receives 150-200 entries. Okón culled through these hundreds of entries and selected artists to visit in San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas. Artpace’s budget allows for four days of traveling.

Okón will make his national and international artist selections based on the many artists he meets while traveling and teaching. He wants the process to be “organic” and he will be considering younger artists who would benefit from the residency’s exposure and experience.

“I will choose work that I feel an affinity to, but that doesn’t mean I want to see myself in the work,” said Okón, adding that he is looking for art that works on multiple levels, that is both formal and conceptual and that connects to its surroundings.

Along with Edgar Hernandez, Okón will also be creating a project for Austin’s Testsite in October.


Top image: Yoshua Okón, Octopus, 2011, video still. Photo courtesy of the Yoshua Okón.

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Wendy Weil Atwell

Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular...