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Interview with Julio Cesar Morales

At year's end, KQED partner Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions, is republishing some of its best interviews from 2010. This article was originally published December 1, 2010.

For this episode,Bad at Sports engages in a roundtable with Julio Cesar Morales about collaboration, curating, pedagogy, and his recent exhibitions. Morales is an artist, educator, and curator who works both individually and collaboratively. He utilizes a range of media including photography, video, and printed and digital media to make conceptual projects that address the productive friction that occurs in trans-cultural territories, such as urban Tijuana and San Francisco, and in inherently impure media, such as popular music and graphic design. This is the second in a series of interviews conducted at Baer Ridgeway as part of Chris Duncan's recent exhibition Eye Against Eye.

Brian Andrews: Julio, you've got your hand in a lot of different pots. From making your own work, curating work, producing work, running Queen's Nails Projects; you're currently teaching, you're also curating at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. So, quite an interesting artistic path that you have taken so far in your career.

Julio Cesar Morales: I think at the core of everything you mentioned, I'm an artist, and everything I do is an extension of an artistic practice for me. So even teaching is a performance. Anyone that teaches knows that. You just perform.

I was formally trained as a photographer. A lot of the work that I do, and my core material, is from photographs. I started this project a couple years ago, called Sonido Pirata, which you probably know the English translation of: Pirated Sounds. It documents the different ways in which people in Mexico sell pirated materials, and how they customized vending carts to play some of the music or DVDs that they sell in the metro or in public spaces.

There is this guy in Mexico City where you can get custom made boom boxes that run off of motorcycle batteries and they last for a week. You can basically customize any kind of inputs and outputs you would want. I went with a friend of mine, a collaborator that I work with on audio-based projects, Eamon Ore-Giron, who used to be here in San Francisco; now he's in LA. We bought these boom boxes and recorded a series of music based on them. Finally I destroyed mine by making a mold to make these porcelain casts.

There's also a graphic element in the exhibition, which is basically taken from an appropriated Peavey amplifier logo. Everyone, when they customize their carts, has a specific look to them. It's about appropriation. They appropriated the Peavey logo to sell their products, and I appropriated their logo to create Sonido Pirata.

Kent Baer: One extension of the project is a record project, which is a mix of original music that you recorded through the boom boxes you purchased.

JCM: A lot of the material that is sold is pirated CDs and DVDs. I should mention that the average Mexican makes about $15 to $16 a day, but it costs the same amount of money to buy a CD and DVD there as it does here, so it doesn't really make sense to spend your day's wage to buy one CD or DVD. In a way, I see it as pirating out of necessity, and how people access specific types of music. Since I've been working on this project, I have been buying and collecting music, and a lot of it is electronic Cumbia music. Really interesting music that you can find anywhere, as well. I was part of this music DJ collective, Club Unicornio, and we shared music. And by sharing this music, we've extended it into a record label that we've created with other artists. A lot of the samples and sounds that you hear within the records and the CD compilations included here are based from this source material from the street vendors.

Patricia Maloney: I'm curious to hear how you would differentiate between appropriation and pirating.

JCM: To me it's the same.

PM: I mention it because you use the terms interchangeably. But the one has the implication of all of this theoretical construct behind it, and the other is basically about illegal activity.

JCM: Oh yes, of course. I mean, it's always an illegal activity, but it's more like an open market in certain places in the world. If you go to Asia or Latin America, it's part of daily life. If you can't afford to do something, you find a different way in which to work it within your life. It's kind of creating your own economy and, at the same time, having access to these goods -- that's what the street vendors are doing. They're not waiting for other people to give them a job or to go to school or anything. They have to survive, and so they create their own economy.

Duncan MacKenzie: It occurs to me that appropriation, which we generally think about as a productive force, as a way to take from culture to make new culture, might actually be a workable analog for piracy in the way that you suggest, with the kind of micro-economies that grow up around these sound carts.

PM: The video that's included in Sonido Pirata reflects that, as well.

JCM: It's part of a larger, ongoing project that I started about street vendors and informal economies in Mexico and its reflection to California. The video started as a series of photographs of street vendors from Tijuana. All the carts and their components explode, expand, and contract, and are placed back together again within the video.

What's interesting about that video is that the vendors get their materials from leftovers from assembly plants. After NAFTA, of course, there were all these assembly plants; you think of any huge corporation, they have an assembly plant in Tijuana. Every Friday they put out discarded materials and these people re-utilize these leftovers to create their carts. I see the carts as these really beautiful assemblage, sculptural pieces.


"Sonido Pirata," Julio Cesar Morales in collaboration with Andre Eamiello, 2010. Courtesy of the Artists and Baer Ridgway, San Francisco.

PM: To describe the space of the exhibition, it's in the downstairs gallery at Baer Ridgway, and all of the things that Julio just described are interspersed within the bookstore area of the gallery. This video is on a small monitor sitting on the shelf, and the casts of the boom boxes are on the floor on the wall opposite. There is this really nice opposition that happens. The pristine quality of these boom boxes, which represent this mass-produced sensibility, as opposed to the extreme of customization, which is just making use of what is at hand and what is available. It becomes cacophonous, visually.

JCM: As an artist, I'm interested in the aesthetic value of certain objects and things. So I like to create an installation in which people can be drawn to the pieces, whether aesthetically or just by the way that they're laid out, and then consider the deeper issues that are at work. I would like people to appreciate it in both realms.

PM: The installation suggests a lot of ideas about labor, and identity, and how one informs the other. Appropriation and re-utilization of all of these materials also create a visual marker of the different levels of labor and use that get absorbed into the background. I think about the ways in which your work pushes those layers forward. I'm hoping that we could talk about that, but also in conjunction with how you work collaboratively -- the idea that you operate very seamlessly between your own practice as an artist and working in operation with others.

JCM: Felipe Dulzaides is here. We had dinner last night and were talking about how easy it is to collaborate in certain cultures, and how welcoming it is. I come from that background where you don't have to be an expert in everything, and if you have an idea, you collaborate with someone to see the potential of what you're interested in creating.

I've collaborated with architects, sound artists, video artists, food anthropologists, chefs, and so on. To me, it's just a medium. It's necessary for me to collaborate.

PM: How does that operate, then, when you're teaching? You just described teaching as performance, but you also collaborate with your students. Is that about breaking out of a traditional model?

JCM: Definitely. I think that students have to know that there is a life outside of the studio, and that they have to interact within the public space and with public agencies. There's more chance to further your work when you think outside the studio and think of collaborating with different people.

DMK: That proposes a different kind of sensibility and a different kind of model for young artists, right? Like the dominant arts pedagogy being essentially celebrity-based, the towering individuals who spring forth from the ground rather than built out of a network of resources, which seems to be more accurate.

JCM: Especially now, in 2010, after the economic downfall globally, how many artists can work with million dollar budgets and have these huge projects that require a specific amount of funding? One of the projects that I just worked on at Yerba Buena was with a Japanese artist, Koki Tanaka. The 99¢ store is his goldmine. He creates all these really interesting video and sculptural projects, and he just mines 99¢ stores for that type of material.

That's the reality now. A lot of funding has dried up, but I think artists need to shift and think, "How we can work differently? How can we be more resourceful?" In that sense, when I work with the students, I try to teach them that you have to be resourceful. You have to ask for things. You have to collaborate. You have to write grants and so on.

PM: I like the idea of collaboration as a medium. So I'm curious to hear how it might be applied according to the situation. Do you think about collaborating differently as an artist than you do in your role as curator at Yerba Buena? And when you're working with artists that are well into their careers?

JCM: This will probably get me in trouble, but I don't really consider myself a curator. I collaborate with artists to see their vision and to help them create the intent of their projects. I think collaboration does depend on a specific situation.

PM: But the positions that I just mentioned also have a certain amount of authority attached to them. You know, when you're operating as an adjunct professor, as an adjunct curator, how do you work past that sense of authority to really empower the people that you're working with?

JCM: I remember when I started Queen's Nails with Liz Mulholland and Bob Linder, we were interested in having the same dynamic of artist-run spaces that existed in the mid-to-late-90s, which basically disappeared when the dot-com boom happened here.

So we just didn't give a shit and just started working with amazing artists that were interested in working with us and in creating laboratory-based projects. All of a sudden, SFMOMA started to show up, or a curator from Spain would show up, and people cared. It's almost like that Morrissey song: "The more you ignore me, the closer I get."

PM: At this point, though, you have to recognize that people are really interested in what you have to say. There's weight attached to that. So how do you navigate that?

BA: Do you feel like you have to struggle more to sort of slough off the pressure of the fact that it matters when you're curating at Yerba Buena?

JCM: Well, I'm only there until they fire me is my motto. And it happens a lot that I walk in there and think, "I'm going to get fired today." The type of programming that I'm doing there is maybe not as radical as other institutions, but according to what historically has been shown there, what I'm doing is a bit different. And I think Ken, the director, is very supportive of that, and that's what he wanted me to do. And that's what I'm doing, but of course, you're dealing with an institution and marketing, and so many different layers and departments. I'm constantly getting into trouble for making things happen!


"Sonido Pirata," Julio Cesar Morales, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist and Baer Ridgway, San Francisco.

John Zarobell: I'm an assistant curator across the street at SFMOMA, and I've worked with artists to make things happen, so one of the questions I have for you, when you talk about collaboration and the kinds of projects you're launching at YBCA -- what is the difference for you between being a curator and being a collaborator? In other words, my own understanding of working with an artist is to realize their vision. But I wonder how you would look at the role that you play, and is it always the same depending on the artist or project you're working on?

JCM: No, it has to change per project. You know, there are so many different approaches that artists have, and from one artist to another, they have specific needs or specific visions of what they want to accomplish. I feel that it's almost three simultaneous roles. One is an artist, one is a collaborator, and one is a curator. Within the projects, they flip back and forth simultaneously.

JZ: So even in a single project, you feel like you play those different roles at different times.

JCM: Yes, it does flip back and forth. You know, when you should say something, when you shouldn't say something, when you should help navigate, and when to just shut up. It's about timing, almost like a comedy. You have to know when to say certain things and when not to. And sometimes you just don't know, quite honestly.

I think that's what I love about what I do -- sometimes I'll just see what happens. For a brief moment, before the car crashes, you might learn something. So I'm doing it because I love the people that I'm working with, but I love the sense that it is furthering myself, not just as an artist, but my interest in art and its extension to audiences.

JZ: I'm fascinated by the way you're talking about it, because, to be honest, I never thought of myself as a collaborator when I was working on a project like that. But looking back at it through your experience, bringing Precita Eyes to work with Kerry [James Marshall] was a decision that I made that had implications for how the project would unfold, even though I saw myself as working with this important artist and facilitating his interaction with this institution. It's impossible, I suppose, to get away from the decision-making process, which is necessarily part of that role.

JCM: I think sometimes when you make that decision, then you just have to live with it, and even if it fails, you have to try and swim away from it. Or try and make something from the ashes. And sometimes you do fail, but I think it's okay. Maybe it's not okay for directors or other people keeping a close eye on you.

BA: With all these metaphors of car crashes and ashes, it seems that risk is something that delineates curatorial activity from collaborative activity, or wherever this grey area is. And the parts of yourself you're putting at risk in that moment. Because in all of these relationships, something is at risk, whether it's part of what the institution mandates or how they want to market themselves, to much more of an interpersonal, creative risk that you have as a collaborator as those things shift.

PM: Perhaps at any moment in the process, it's about where your primary allegiance is. Is it to the idea at hand, is it to the exchange of ideas, to the person you're in collaboration with, or is it, as John was talking about, to the cognizance of the audience and how the audience is going to receive this?

JCM: I think a lot of people ask themselves, "What is success, or what is a successful piece, or what are some of the main objectives, and did I meet these objectives?" once they finalize the project. I think it's touch-and-go throughout the duration, and sometimes the process is a lot more interesting than the outcome.

PM: I think the process is frequently more interesting than the outcome. Exhibitions are interesting only -- for me, at least -- in terms of the further conversations that they generate.

DMK: I am really curious about your role as pedagogue, and the way that you understand teaching as part of your artistic practice and how that manifests in the classroom. I feel like every one of us who teaches would recognize it as a kind of performative activity. There are those artists who want to latch on and say teaching is part of their practice in a kind of naïve way, and then there are those who are very thoughtful about it. Then there are those that totally resist it, and say they teach because they have to make money. I want to hear you more clearly.

JCM: Maybe an example is a class I teach about the influence of punk rock on contemporary art, which goes back to looking at subcultures and urban spaces. There are many different layers to it. I started a pirate radio station at school that really is an examination of artists influenced by audio, or historically have done audio-based projects. The students get to create their own series of radio shows, and it's like a public intervention. I try to bring something that has many different layers that people can grasp onto, whether it's the historical part of it or the public intervention.

BA: The performative role of you as pedagogue is about sharing your ethos with them and getting them used to functioning through practice. Very directly.

JCM: And when I say perform, you genuinely want to create an excitement about the content that you're teaching. Like I would never teach art history. Felipe, do you want to mention anything about teaching? We both teach in the New Genres program at SFAI.

PM: That's actually a point that I wanted to touch on. Both of you are in the New Genres program at SFAI, which is about incorporating ephemeral and conceptual media. So a school can work very well as a laboratory -- for exploration, experimentation, and collaboration. How do you engender your students with a sense of how they can then replicate those practices in an exhibition, working with a curator or an institution, as you're doing?

Felipe Dulzaides: This is what I try to pass to the students. For me, art always has been a journey. It's like a process of getting to a place that I didn't know before. Really looking for the surprise. I got to a place where I didn't feel I would get to. That is the exciting part, the creative sense. I try to pass to the student that kind of attitude, too. To understand that the idea is not to do something because you know the answers, the idea is to do it because you want to ask questions. Because you want to maybe raise some questions that we don't know the answers to.

PM: Is that then, coming out on the other side, being met with those questions, as a curator? Julio, you have a privilege to be able to operate somewhat seamlessly, but not all of your students will have the same opportunity. How do you encourage them to ask the questions, and then how do you also encourage them to operate in this sphere where they're also supposed to know what they're doing?

JCM: They get better grades for failing. I'm serious. I'd rather them not see a clean, perfect little project. They'll get a better grade for really trying and experimenting, and going outside their normal balance. I try to instill this sense of exploration within the classroom -- but, at the same time, to seek out people that you want to work with.

To hear the full interview, listen to Episode 274 on Bad at Sports.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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