FANTASY ISLAND: A love letter to Puerto Rico
Dear AS220 universe and beyond,
Artistic Director, Shey Rivera, checking in. In the midst of everything going on in the world, I hope you and your loved ones are doing well.
In the wake of the challenges that Puerto Rico is facing, a few staff at AS220, community members, and friends have asked for more info about my FANTASY ISLAND exhibit/installation in NYC. So I thought I’d take the time to share the what and why, beyond the face to face:
Since the beginning of last year, most of my artistic energy beyond AS220 has gone toward mobilizing to create awareness and educate folks here in the U.S. about the economic and socio-political condition of Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised. To me, art can serve as a way to facilitate space for dialogue, knowledge-sharing, emotional connection, and action. I zoned in on Puerto Rico’s colonial status, the limits on the rights of our citizenship, and the unfair business regulations and tax exempt bonds that favored U.S. corporations and led to a deep economic crisis. And, of course, the implications of the P.R.O.M.E.S.A. Act: a bill that was passed last year to establish a Fiscal Oversight Board, an external committee to “restructure” the debt; a committee that overrules the government and -to many- represents multiple human rights violations.
My efforts started with the “¡Capicú! Let Them Eat Cake” intervention/installation alongside artist and curator Anabel Vázquez Rodríguez in both ** RISD Exposé ** Gallery in Downtown Providence and at Distillery Gallery in Boston. This fire evolved toward the creation of FANTASY ISLAND, to shed light on the contradictions of tourism and luxury lifestyle sold to outsiders; a disconnect from the reality of most people living in the island, especially amidst a dire economic crisis.
On a separate note, I never went to art school. My artistic practice was self-driven in Puerto Rico and catalyzed by the mission and vision of AS220 and the inspiring community of multi-disciplinary artists in Rhode Island. My practice is socially-driven, immersive or collaborative, and research-based.
Ok, so what is FANTASY ISLAND?
It is a virtual & performative space -a real estate office selling luxury property in Puerto Rico. You enter a space where walls are a black and white grid, with video monitors displaying esoteric animated Gifs of luxury property in Puerto Rico (made at AS220 Media Arts). An office desk waits for you on the center of the room, surrounded by majesty palm trees, while a pink glow emanating from the coopted logo of Puerto Rico’s Tourism council (a hot pink neon sign) floods the room. Aesthetically, this is a wink at the offbeat A.E.S.T.H.E.T.I.C. of the “vaporwave” movement born on the internet. Vaporwave plays on the idea of obsolete futures and luxury lifestyle sold by corporate culture in the 80s and early 90s. To continue the tour, a corner of the room hosts a large altar (cut on the AS220 Labs’ CNC router aka shop bot) that frames a digital print with graffiti silkscreened in gold. This altar piece is titled Nana Buruku; it is a calling for us to remember our Afro-Indigenous heritage, to decolonize our culture, and it is a love note to my own syncretist spiritual background. (Shout out to Larry, Paris, and Chris from AS220 Industries for their help and guidance!)
Within this virtual real estate office, my friend and collaborator journalist/photograper/musician Huáscar Robles delivers a performance as a private developer who intends to displace, gentrify and capitalize on the town of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But, this persona slowly starts reconnecting with his roots and humanity through the people in the neighborhood and his perspective changes. In closing, I perform an “incantation” piece titled “Soy bruja”, a poetry chant that opens the floor for us to converse with the audience about the socio-political and economic situation in the island. MORE PHOTOS HERE.
FANTASY ISLAND was presented at the AS220 Project Space this past June, with the support of the City of Providence’s Dept. of Art, Culture + Tourism (AC+T); shout out to Lizzie Arujo (AC+T), as well as Neal Walsh, AS220’s Gallery Director. It received such great reception that it was covered by various media outlets and publications, including Hyperallergic, a renowned digital forum of contemporary art with a strong socio-political focus, ArtScope New England, Motif Magazine, Repeating Islands, and the local forum Law and Order Party list.
NOW: The FANTASY ISLAND conversation of displacement and gentrification gains more weight as it relates to the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Maria, which has further lifted the veil on the deep impact of colonialism in the island. It speaks to disaster capitalism and the measures we must take to protect our land and support our people. Outside of mobilizing to support my own family who lives in Puerto Rico, I’ve been connecting with various relief efforts and communicating with individuals and groups in the island and other ‘diasporicans’ here in RI, NYC, MA and even South Carolina. My goal is for FANTASY ISLAND to disseminate reliable information and help strengthen the energy than many others are generating in support of Puerto Rico and its people. Using art to connect, galvanize, educate, and mobilize. The conversation does not stop there; it includes our sister islands in the Caribbean as well as the impact this has had on the diasporas.
The Loisaida, Inc. Center (NYC) reached out to host what is more than an art exhibit; this is a virtual and physical space to convene, to commune, and to talk through these critical issues affecting our island of Puerto Rico. The renowned Loisaida Arts Center, is a gallery and cultural center in the Lower East Side in NYC, founded in the 70s by Puerto Ricans. It services the Latinx community and has become a pillar that protects the residents of the area, which is seeing rapid gentrification. They are inspired by AS220 and often reference us as a model. I am personally inspired by their work within the intersection of art, social justice, and community development. If you visit NYC, make sure to stop by! (Cool note: “loisaida” is a spanish way of saying “lower east side”). FANTASY ISLAND is also part of the Caribbean Crisis schedule of programming in NYC, an initiative led by filmmaker and journalist Frances Negrón-Muntaner.
How this relates to Rhode Island: Providence is almost 50% people of color by now, with 38% of the population being Latinx, out out which the biggest populations are Dominican, Puerto Rican and Guatemalan, but we have representation from almost every country in Latin America. As a resource: the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY (City University of NY) disseminated demographic info on the Puerto Rican Population in RI, although numbers have increased since 2013. A special shout out to local leaders in RI: Lydia Pérez, Director of the Puerto Rican Institute for Arts and Advocacy, Rebecca Flores, founder of the Natasha Love Foundation, and Pablo Rodríguez, director of RI Latino Public Radio; three powerhouse Puerto Rican artists who -for many years- have been activating people in Rhode Island and beyond through their multifaceted work: from artistic practice and cultural advocacy, to health and wellness, to media and education, social justice, philanthropy, and civic engagement. I also want to recognize our Secretary of State, Nelly Gorbea who is a proud Puertorriqueña, as well as the inspiring Taino Palermo, Director of Continuing Studies at Roger Williams University, Rafael Zapata, Chief Diversity Office of Providence College, the stellar Saul Ramos and Maritza Martell of Arte Latino New England, and the electric Joel Tapia, local artist and advocate of indigenous rights. There are many other Boricuas doing great work here in Rhode Island. To all of you, a big THANK YOU for the work you do for our communities here and beyond.
Relief efforts: Puerto Rico is in dire condition. For those who are interested in supporting, both PRIAA and Natasha Love Foundation are collaborating on relief efforts here in Rhode Island. You can connect to them via Facebook and their respective websites. I also recommend learning about EcoKitPuertoRico.org and MariaFund.org, as well as local grassroots organizations in the island who are doing direct work, like Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas. Casa Pueblo has a long history of environmental justice, sustainable farming, education, and community organizing toward advocacy efforts, among other initiatives.
Thank you for your awareness and desire to learn and mobilize.
And a big THANK YOU to AS220 for being such a critical and inspiring space of empathy and action.
FANTASY ISLAND runs until Nov 18th at Loisaida Arts Center. Here’s the schedule of upcoming events:
- Thurs, Oct 5 // Opening reception and performances. Afterwards, beats by @wacklikethat (Kourtnie Funmi Aileru), AS220 Youth alumni and RISD grad.
- Sat, Oct 21 // FANTASY ISLAND panel discussion, ft. Javier Torres (ArtPlace; community development, cross-sector partnerships led by art and design), Ed Morales (journalist and scholar, expert on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis), and Shey Rivera (artist, arts manager, community organizer); moderated by journalist Huáscar Robles. 5 – 7 pm
- Sat, Nov 11 // “StormWater” performance night. 7 – 10pm
- Sat, Nov 18 // Closing event with performances. 5 – 7pm
[FANTASY ISLAND Opening reception photos by Audaz Productions / Melvin Audaz]