Katie Paine: It is quite interesting that the aesthetics of this new piece feels a lot more subdued, sombre in tone. In comparison to the colour schemes of other works which could be described lurid…perhaps even camp in some places… I’m wondering if you could tell me about this change in aesthetics?
Diego Ramirez: I took a small break when making this work as I wanted to go in a new direction, I felt that I wanted to deal with more subdued themes. In regards to the new aesthetic: one of the reasons it is more subdued is because it is inspired by the monochromatic appearance of the postcards themselves and the context within which they were produced. Also, I’m referencing horror movies and their colour palette which is usually quite sombre.
Postcards were the genesis for your project Postcard eXotica. Did you come across them by chance? Or where you looking for them?
All of them, I bought from the internet. The first thing I found out about them was their history. One of the main reasons I am interested in them is because they were quite influential in cinema and particularly in the development of Mexican stereotypes. But the very first time that I encountered ethnographic postcards as such was through the practice of Brooke Andrew. He is an Australian artist who has worked with them a great deal throughout his career. For example, he has this installation called Paradise in which he created a series of assemblages utilizing postcards depicting Aboriginal portraits. But what appeals to me about them in general is the idea that you take a postcard when you go to a foreign place but the postcard itself also takes you to a strange place, it transports you to this bizarre land in your head. And there is an interesting slippage between the intention of the postcard and what the reader sees that makes them rather attractive. What I also find interesting about the postcards that I am dealing with is that they were not taken by professional photographers or ethnographers but rather entrepreneurs, who went south of the border to take photos for profit. The reason why it was profitable for them to do so was that there was a lot of interest in Mexico at the time because there was a conflict taking place (Mexican Revolution). You look at these photos, and it is funny because a lot of them are badly taken, and they are blatantly misinformed, but they still became a strong point of reference for cinematic depictions of Mexican subjects. So, the way that I reworked the postcards in Postcard eXotica is through a method of active reading. Michel De Certeau, the author of Practices of Everyday Life, talks about forms of everyday resistance, he conceptualises readers as textual poachers, he proposes that as a reader, one grabs what is valuable about a text, and takes it to a different place…so you create deviant readings of the original texts. Which is what I did with those postcards, I created a series of videos prompted by the original images, but I took them somewhere else, a place strongly inspired by horror, and early film. It makes a lot of sense if you think back to that idea of the slippage between the photographer, the sender and the reader…perhaps they were all interpreting the same image differently.
Can you tell me a little more about your interest in horror?
Horror makes up a major component of my research. Mainly because the way we think and visualise the racial Other is highly reminiscent to depictions of monsters, aliens or demons…it’s the fear that they are going to take over. You see stereotypical monsters in film and they’re always chasing a woman… this idea that they’re predatory, that they’re going to have their way with a woman, procreate and make everyone like them. You will find similar storylines in racist pamphlets for example, or even stereotypes like the “Latin lover”. This parallel is so clear in early film, where you have monsters like Nosferatu, a German Expressionist film about Vampires, who is specifically based in Jewish stereotypes. With Mexico, an interesting thing happened in the United States where certain tropes of minstrelsy got transferred to Mexican stereotypes. In minstrel shows, they tend to depict racial and ethnic figures in a grotesque way, as the audience seemed to have taken great pleasure out of characters looking and acting different, especially when it happened in an undermining manner. Here, difference becomes a form of entertainment. This migrated to Mexican stereotypes in many respects. Film is a bizarre medium in the sense that it is inherently racist: the way the industry calibrates and develops technology has been with the white body as its basis. In the case of early film, people of ethnic or diverse backgrounds were in many instances white people black (or brown)-facing. So, those weird translations were things I was trying to put together in Postcard eXotica, manifold references that point in the same direction: the development of photography and film linked to its racialized undertones.
You mention seeing your role as a delegator of performance, in your previous videos, you played the characters yourself. Could you tell us a little about the very conscious choice to move from embodying a character yourself to delegating?
Yes, what is important about that is that these people were playing my subjectivity, not so much my nationality but my immigrant status, if you will. The fact that none of them were Mexican also allowed me to disrupt the dynamics posed by the original photographs. I think there were many things I wanted to say that I could not say with my own body and my own presence on screen. It is a different form of discourse and I was not happy with the way that the works that I performed in were read – in the sense that people were always trying to extract personal information from them. Whenever they wanted to talk about my work, they wanted to talk about personal things. I felt audiences were making assumptions and asking me all these stupid questions. So, I wanted to make this transition and stop performing to create a wider, cooler distance between myself and the content in my work. To take a more analytical stand, to not have so much of it reflected to me on a personal level.
You can see quite distinctly in your practice that there is an eroticism that permeates the works, a libidinal energy. Do you think that this is one of the most recurring elements in your work?
I feel that eroticism has a very strong connection to ethnography: ethnography is like pornography. In the context of pornography, you are looking at a body that is going to give you pleasure and satisfaction…it is a body that you look at and desire, that in some cases you fear as well, but it is a body that is always rendered by expectation. I guess that is why I play with ideas of erotica and exotica. The other interesting thing about erotica, when you think about it in relation to practices of reading, is that there is a notion called “media erotics” that concentrates on the way that readers engage with media in an erotic manner to create new texts. One of the characteristic of these re-readings is that they tend to be quite deviant. This links back to the idea of making new texts out of a mass media object. Through this lens, the text’s critical potential lies in the way that it deviates from the normative values put forward by the original text. The eroticism in my work is born out of that, of my engagement with pre-existent media.
I am curious about your writing practice: you write critically about other people’s work, as well as your own. How do you feel your writing practice correlates with your video practice?
My studio practice is research based. The first thing I do when embarking on a project is research…This has two outcomes: one is an artwork, the other is a piece of writing. That’s something I began doing in 2014, with my exhibition aXolotl’s Smile. I published a piece in Runway Magazine about how the axolotl functions as a vehicle for knowledge, in regards to ideas of post colonialism…then I published another text in Critical Contemporary Culture based on a studio residency I did at Blindside where I interviewed some costume players, the point of that piece was to consider the racial politics of their performances. I did the same for my last solo show at MARS Gallery in 2015, My Material World, and published a piece considering the history of anime in Mexico in Fragmented Magazine. Basically, what I have been doing since aXolotl’s Smile is making writing in parallel to my art work. What writing allows me to do is develop concrete ideas about what the content of my work is dealing with. This allows me to play with form more freely: once I nail down my research and my writing, I can do whatever I want…Then it becomes interesting. That is the point where I can walk in as an artist and do everything wrong.
I’m interested in the self-reflexive way that Postcard Exotica refers to film, and theatre, there are tableaux that remind me of perhaps Ancient Greek choral tableaux, but there are also elements of slapstick, of Commedia Dell Arte, as well as direct visual references to the camera… the viewer feels aware of the camera, and what it is doing
One of the interesting things about early film is that it engaged audiences quite differently from current mainstream cinema. For example, there is a notion called Cinema of Curiosities which refers to a form of popular cinema that existed prior to the raise of the Hollywood narrative. In the Cinema of Curiosities, viewers weren’t necessarily looking for a narrative, they were looking for a visual – not so much spectacle – but a visual curiosity. They might see a magical tableau and be attracted to its oddity, to the strangeness of what they were looking at. The way in which we look at racialized others today, the pleasure of looking at someone who is different…It has a strange history, you must remember that a lot of these films were shown as part of side shows. It melds with a tradition of the comic grotesque and the racialized other in a way that reminds you how laughter and race often intersect in American visual culture. Obviously when you talk about American media you talk about global media. Someone might think: why is this important in Australia? these Mexican history postcards…but they should put attention, as the way they look at Mexico is through the lens of American visual culture. To me, is not about improving racial relations, but about developing knowledge and forms that play with these relations. My work points to the abysmal gap between the knowledge these photographers had on their subjects and the size of their influence in visual culture. I think its valuable for an Australian audience to properly understand the idea they have of ‘the Mexican’ in their head, not only this but also other racial stereotypes that they visualise or that they believe in. Besides, there is a history of ethnographic postcards and a precedent of contemporary artists working with them in Australia, this work has a context.
Have you found it at all dangerous, or too seductive to be regularly working with and responding to themes like the spectacle, the other, the grotesque, the deviant. Do you get at all anxious that you may compartmentalised as a practitioner? …it can be a risky tight rope to walk.
It is so seductive to get lost in that…. you know some doors close, but a lot of others open if you play to those expectations. It can become just like those postcards, where you are giving people what they want, and what they find pleasurable. But in my history and position I just feel compelled to respond to those ideas. There are many reasons I am interested in dealing with those themes, in fact, the real impulse I have as an artist, is to deal with difference. It just so happens the type of difference that is currently projected at me is racialized difference. It makes sense for me to work with that. To think deeply about the categories I’m forced to inhabit.
Are you conscious that people might perceive you as fetishizing the other?
I suppose some people might perceive it that way or find my work a bit self-exoticising. I can understand that, but at the same time, if I am working in the context of Western Art history, which I am, and there is a history of exoticisation, it seems simplistic to ignore it and just pretend to be untouched by it. You also must remember that there is a precedent for this kind of work, there is a well-established lineage of artists dealing with these themes in contemporary art. So, I would put into question the reading skills of an audience that dismisses my work on those grounds. I also think it is valuable to work the way I do because, the reason I keep coming back to horror or melodrama, or a pornographic aesthetics is because those are genres that un-stabilise the body, you know with horror you have the scare, the scream; with melodrama, you have the crying; with comedy, you have the laughter; and with pornography you have the ejaculation. This is what film scholar Linda Williams calls “body genres”, as they are cinematic genres that destabilise the body on screen to provoke a physical reaction on the viewer. They’re small moments that allow a different way of perceiving the body on screen.