Premiere: "Lessons For A Healthy American Lifestyle", Video Artist Izel Villarba and Curator Andrea Granera on Deconstructing Borders
Written by Izel Villarba & Andrea Granera
“Lessons for a Healthy American Lifestyle” was shown at “Sin Fronteras”, a group art show and benefit for asylum seekers in need of immediate aid at the US border. The show took place at the 8-Ball Community headquarters on December 2nd, a week after a caravan of migrants, many traveling with children, were bombarded with tear gas and rubber bullets by US border patrol officers. Below is a conversation between Izel Villarba, and the curator of “Sin Fronteras”, Andrea Granera, about the video, looking back on the benefit show, and what to do next.
Izel Villarba: So tell me about the show.
Andrea Granera: It was an urgent gathering where I felt like I needed to harness everything I could to do something for my community.
Izel: How did it come about?
Andrea: There are some women who really inspire me who are on the ground organizers. My friend Paula, other people who are in the DIY and activist scene like my friend Josephine. They just really inspire me to do tangible things for my community like this. I was feeling very powerless and disconnected from my purpose and work with my community, but Josephine was telling me she was organizing a benefit. She’s a musician and I was like “I should organize a benefit too” and the ball just started rolling. I hit up everyone that I knew that could be into this who might have something to add. I hit up Jheyda from Art Hoe (Collective) and put out a call and said “Hey, who would want to help if I wanted to do this thing for asylum seekers at the border?” and a lot of people reached out. One of those people was June, who ended up being my co-organizer and partner in this. The response was just amazing, I think everyone really felt like they understood the urgency of this and wanted to do something about this.
Izel: How do you feel about the end result?
Andrea: It went incredibly; I think it was such a testament to the power of community
Izel: Yeah, I was really satisfied with the turn out. I think it was really important to get this amount of people to show up and actually make stuff for it, with so many different mediums that were covered. You had zine stands, photos, performances, music, spoken word. You reached out to me and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be in the show or not. I had no clue what to make for it, or if I had anything for it, and within a week between you reaching out to me and the show happening everything just kind of clicked. You presented this idea, “Sin Fronteras” (No Borders) and that was the one thing I had to work off.
Andrea: You’re the only person who asked me what the theme was. There wasn’t really a theme but I guess there was because there was no hesitation in my answer, “no borders.” But at the same time I almost didn’t need to prompt any of the artists.
Izel: The show was important for me too because I don’t know anyone personally at the border and I didn’t have any friends who were effected or knew anyone effected but I knew you and you knew people who were directly involved, people who were helping there right now. It gave me an outlet to help.
Andrea: I think it’s been cool to bring all the people I know together, not in a physical way but in an artistic way. In your piece I’m wondering what was your personal thing that you drew from to connect to this experience? If it was from your family or what was the personal experience that helped you with your perspective for your piece?
Izel: I think just living in America, we live in a country where it sucks that we have to be ashamed of this, it’s a thing that’s happening and we have a government that’s doing all this terrible shit. I want to live in a country that I can be proud of, but this stuff is happening. I wanted to make something that would make people feel some type of way about it
Andrea: It definitely made me and a lot of people feel some type of way.
Izel: Yeah, you gave me this idea for “Sin Fronteras.” One of my favorite artists is Bruce Nauman and he has a retrospective at MoMA right now which you should really check out if you haven’t yet. He plays a lot with language and the idea of how it’s a broken thing, how it can be interpreted in so many different ways. I was inspired by him and I thought about language, about how these people trying to get across the border don’t speak what we speak. I started thinking about the type of racist people that will say “They don’t speak ‘American. This is America they need to be American to be a part of this country.’” Like what the fuck does that even mean!
Andrea: It’s absolutely absurd.
Izel: Why is this violence necessary? Rubber bullets and tear gas. I didn’t want to say too much or too little. I wanted to state the facts and what’s happening right now. Some of these statements can be read subjectively, but when you think of the stone cold facts… there was tear gas, rubber bullets. There were women, there were children. You can’t hide that. You can’t read into that. There’s no subjective side to it.
Andrea: There’s no argument that that happened. I really like this tone you used of this kind of dapper aesthetic and voice. I feel like it’s very effective because in American history, media from the 50s to the 90s has that dapper tone and there’s something kind of ominous about it. How did that aesthetic come about to you?
Izel: The way it started out, I knew this was a group show and I wanted to make a video. A group show is going to be really loud so I can’t really use something dependent on sound. I use captions a lot to play around with language. My last video [“The Pearl of the Orient”] was about how I couldn’t understand Tagalog so I made up captions for people speaking Tagalog. When you think about the relationship between the racist ass Trump government versus people not from the country who are trying to seek asylum, they have this aggressive mentality of “Oh, you don’t speak the language, we don’t understand you, therefore you’re an alien and you’re exotic and you don’t belong here, you can’t come in.” I thought about the theme of language and the role it plays in our society today, how to break that down. So I started writing about that and how racism is instilled in youth.
Andrea: The way we learn in school! That’s what I was thinking about.
Izel: Exactly! Like how are we taught language? How is racism ultimately instilled?
Andrea: It’s taught to us!
Izel: Yeah, like how is the “American” language taught? There’s no such thing as the American language you know. It’s just fucking English! But it’s that mentality.
Andrea: It’s not the language but it’s the way, I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but it’s a binary way of thinking.
Izel: Right, then I started thinking about tutorial videos, “How-Tos.” I started writing with a very poetic mindset inspired by Nauman, jumping around trying to figure out how to break down the language I was using. For example, “the government abridges civil liberties” and then to “a bridge between cultures.”
Andrea: Yeah that was interesting, the word play.
Izel: That was a huge part of it too. I had all of it written out before I even thought of visuals. I was still forming the idea of captions and what I could use to accompany the writing. For me what came to mind regarding language was Chinese people in Chinatown. When you go to Columbus Park, there are all these old Chinese people playing Mahjong and gambling, and a bunch of tourists watching them. It’s really funny to me and really absurd that they’re all yelling at each [other] while the tourists and I watch in awe and only they can understand each other. They don’t care that we’re watching and we can be voyeurs to their games without boundaries. It’s really beautiful. I was going to film that and juxtapose it with the words I had written. But the more I thought about it, I just felt like that wasn’t going to fit or work well with my words. Chinese people have nothing to do with what/ who I’m directly addressing, which is what’s going on at the border.
Andrea: Latinx people.
Izel: Exactly. I was thinking, “I’m in New York, what can I film right now to address this? Where can I find cultures that mix together?” I thought of playgrounds and parks and then handball. It’s a very hood sport in a lot of ways; you see it in a lot of Latino and black neighborhoods. I tried going to film handball during the day but it’s really cold right now and no one’s playing. Then I was like, “fuck I have to go and appropriate shit from YouTube now.” The more I thought about handball the more it made sense to me. There’s different types of handball, you can play three wall or play in an enclosed space. You’re literally making these borders for yourself and you can’t get out; that’s how you play the game
Andrea: Wow, it’s interesting how borders came up in so many ways during that process.
Izel: Yeah, it’s funny. The reason why handball stuck to me is because it’s a sport based on a wall. The wall is the main thing and when you think of borders and walls in the context of America, handball just fits so well. I tried collaging different clips because the words were more important for me. I just wanted a video collage to have in the background, but then I found this one clip of this white, fratty dude teaching these kids how to play handball, which was just so perfect. Teaching kids especially. Some things started to click when I was editing too, like the wall in the background of the video says “bam” “kapow” “boom” and right when we see that I mention tear gas. The whole video clicked like that without me even really thinking about it. Like “fuck I can’t not use this.” It even timed out perfectly with the words I wrote… Then I had to go to a voice generator, make voice memos of it saying the words, and edit it all together so that it made sense.
Andrea: What was that voice generator?
Izel: I just googled it. You can pick all these different languages. I originally tried “American English” but it sounded too much like a computer was saying it. Then I tried “British English” and I was like holy shit! It’s perfect too because it’s British, who are America’s colonizers.
Andrea: It’s trippy, it really is.
Izel: Yeah, that’s what I came up with within a week, the whole process.
Andrea: I like it because it’s really simple and I think simplicity is really hard to do because it really just takes surrendering to this feeling of being clear. I think being clear and simple is so effective, especially when the issue is so potent. And that’s kind of why I feel like with artists of color, I don’t think it has to be abstract. I felt like when I tried to understand abstract art and didn’t really get it, I thought, “Am I just not engaging in the right way? Am I missing something?” But what I realize is that just because something is abstract doesn’t mean it has to be so disconnected. POC artists’ work is usually very clear to me.
Izel: Do you think it has to do with you being POC?
Andrea: I mean yeah, but I’m thinking about my perception of the art world and high art world, but I’m more in the DIY scene, it’s just the inaccessibility.
Izel: That’s what I loved about your show though, anyone could come in and take away so many things from it and appreciate it. It wasn’t exclusive at all, a very safe space.
Andrea: Totally, and I felt like the work, as a curator, I just kind of said yes and that’s what happened. I pretty much said yes to anyone that wasn’t a straight white man. Then this happened and it was an extremely vibrant, potent display where every piece popped. And it kind of felt like a supernova!
Izel: Yeah, it happens in a flash too.
Andrea: Yeah! And I really hope to keep it going. I hope to make it a monthly series in 2019.
Izel: And thanks so much for giving me the basement to show the video.
Andrea: Of course! It was so strong there.
Izel: Yeah, it gave me an excuse to incorporate sound. Like I had this quiet space away from the rest of the show, I really got to use sound to my advantage. It was sick, everyone had a good time.
Andrea: Yeah! The power of community! It’s all we have.
Andrea: I couldn’t tell you what else keeps me going. I think what was most important with this event was that I made a call to my community and the response was way bigger than me
Izel: Definitely, I’m sure you went in with some expectation and it was just blown away by how many people showed up, or reached out, contributed. How much did you raise?
Andrea: We raised like 4K!
Izel: That’s crazy.
Andrea: We’ve been able to send that to the Caravan Support Network which is an on the ground organization that gives funds to various organizers that need it so they have a pool of money, an ongoing GoFundMe. I’ve been able to send it to my organizer friends, one of which just moved to Tijuana. My friend put me in contact with an LGBT house that’s housing 60 LGBTQ asylum seekers, who are very neglected and struggling. So yeah we sent them enough money to eat for like a week.
Andrea: Yeah, it’s been beautiful. It just feels like a flow that I feel like we have to keep going.
Izel: And yeah people still need help so I guess for those who are reading this, how can they get involved?
Andrea: I think staying informed, and we all at this time need to work on accountability and ego
Izel: Why ego?
Andrea: I think ego sneaks up on us when it comes to this type of “political involvement.” Ego will say “I can’t, I’m powerless I’m not qualified because I’m not of that group.” But I think we can challenge that ego by saying it’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s not about any of us. How can we work towards a mentality that’s bigger than us more consistently?
Izel: Even thinking about that is big too; to not be apathetic. You can’t just sit around. You sit and watch but you’re not helping anything or moving the world. How can you sit and watch this shit happen, why aren’t you doing anything?
Andrea: I think it is a journey I’ve struggled with, being powerless a lot which can lead to apathy and lack of motivation. How can we support each other and keep each other going and keep focus on what really matters? In terms of tangible ways there’s donating and talking about it.
Izel: Yeah! Talk about it. Fucking make art about it. I think people forget that they have a voice. That’s such a powerful thing, having your own voice and the ability to use it. Some people can’t even do that.
Andrea: Absolutely, I try my best to share the resources I have. I think there are different roles in organizing and movements and that’s mine, a person that people can refer to. So if you’re reading this and need someone to refer to you can refer to me because I know not everyone has those resources. Some people are doing the research and putting it on the internet for you to see so that’s definitely a way. Organizing is the move, under the umbrella of organizing is community and growth and art and accountability and it’s all encompassing. How can we collectively work towards something better for our communities internationally and for each other? If you and I are working on this show it’s going to bring up accountability while raising funds as our responsibility for this event.
Izel: Yeah this is what we can do as humans for other humans to better the world to make sure that less shitty things happen like tear gas and rubber bullets and xenophobia and fighting.
Andrea: Absolutely. Your parents immigrated?
Izel: Yes I’m the son of Filipino immigrants. My mom moved to Seattle when she was a teenager and my dad came after he graduated college
Andrea: They were so young, were they the only ones?
Izel: They came with their families, but yeah they came for a better life. America can be dope in so many ways but there’s still shit about our country that I don’t like personally. We have so much we need to work on and work for.
Andrea: I think it’s interesting and complicated to be a child of immigrants, it gives us a very unique voice.
Izel: Yeah it feels like you know your roots but you’re still very distant from them. You weren’t the one who immigrated; you don’t know how hard that was.
Andrea: But we’re the ones that have the privilege, the rhetoric to process what it all means.
Andrea: It’s such a complicated space, even though the show was for Latinx immigrants, I’m just interested in immigration.
Izel: And I think it says a lot about the mentality people should have or could have towards people that aren’t from America, people that aren’t you. To be able to think that selflessly is very important.
Andrea: The reason I asked about your family was because I was wondering about your personal relationship with immigration in the beginning of this conversation and if that came up in the process of making the video.
Izel: The reason why I made the video, and why I’m proud of it, and why it’s important to me is that I’m the son of immigrants. On top of Latinx, this binary, aggressive mentality attacks any immigrant, especially of color, that’s not from America.
Andrea: I was feeling the POC solidarity, and solidarity I think was a big thing about the show, we had POC from all places contributing and it was just really impactful. I think everyone had a relationship to the issue; it was a great example of solidarity and showing up for each other.
Andrea: I felt like your video was potent and impactful for a lot of people, people told me it really made them think.
Izel: I have no clue what they were thinking, but as long as it gets people to think, whatever that may be, it achieves its goal.
If you’re looking for ways to help asylum seekers, you can donate to:
Al Otro Lado, a US-based organization coordinating support for unaccompanied minors in Tijuana.
Frontline Medics, a group that trains allies on first aid and tear gas response. They are often at the scene right away to pass out medicine to victims.
Caravan Support Network, a collective of individuals and various groups working together to provide direct support to the Exodus Caravan in Tijuana, BC and San Diego, CA.