In his parallel identities as a maker who employs the media of photography, performance, video, installation, and poetry, Harry Gamboa, Jr. (b. 1951, Los Angeles), has produced a range of work that remains critical to an understanding not only of Chicano art and its history, but also to a more accurate depiction of the avant-garde in the wake of minimalism in the United States. Perhaps because his identity as a visual artist often eclipses his poetic practice, Gamboa’s writings are rarely discussed in the context of present-day Latinx poetry. Gamboa consistently discredits accepted categories—creating innovative alternatives to reveal a history otherwise rendered invisible by dominant cultural institutions and media industries. By turns dryly humorous, eerily dreamlike, and always surprising, Gamboa’s work is a critique of the new urban life forms represented in Los Angeles over the last several decades as the city came into its own as an idiosyncratic cultural nexus. In language resembling “delayed, detonated bombs,” Gamboa was inspired by the collisions of voices in the Boyle Heights neighborhood vicinity and by the collusion of language with what he refers to as, “the theatricality of everyday life in East Los Angeles.” Gamboa’s brand of Boyle Heights surrealism or barrio baroque aims often to expand the proprietary nature of the self.
Harry Gamboa, Jr. is currently on faculty of the Photography and Media Program at the California Institute of the Arts. The artist and I met to discuss his work the day before his performance lecture at the University of Houston, as part of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center’s CounterCurrent Festival (April 20, 2017). We also discussed his upcoming exhibition Chicano Male Unbonded, which opens in Los Angeles on September 16, 2017 at the Autry Museum of the American West.
Roberto Tejada (RT): In addition to your part in the foundational Chicano art collective ASCO, you’ve since produced a significant body of work as a photographer and a writer of short fiction, stage works, and poetry. You’ve worked as well with a wide-ranging and variable ensemble in the performance troupe Virtual Vérité.
Harry Gamboa, Jr. (HGJ): I launched Virtual Vérité officially in 2005. The idea, after a series of trials and errors, was to have the project last a decade. After the dissolution of ASCO in 1985, I devoted efforts to different solo and collective projects about the interaction of people with the built environment, particularly in the landscape of Los Angeles. So as to think about L.A. as both a spatial design and geography, I selected collaborators with whom I was familiar, a bright and amiable circle—in some cases former students—creating a trust that gave way to no subterfuge or sabotage. I viewed it as an ensemble, and in a way it functioned much like a dance troupe.
RT: In the documentation and still images there appears to be an operative method—as though bodies have been activated in social space to think through an idea.
HGJ: Right. I serve as both a curator, putting performers together, and as director. But it’s difficult to sustain a group unless everyone’s content, and that’s part of my practice: to ensure an environment of encouragement and happiness. This way you can dissipate the resistance between performers, enabling them to respond almost organically as a group, visually, and in exchange, allowing themselves to serve as the basis of an image. Most of the resulting images have never been printed. Most people, including the performers themselves, have never actually viewed them. An image like that can be a kind of virtual reward, momentary evidence that you exist. The idea being that you put out this work, even though you don’t really know when or where it’s going to land. But then it does, and each image points back to a particular action. My trajectory, on one level, always points back to the creative possibilities of being Chicano. To that end, Virtual Vérité posed a question: “What is the relationship of Chicanos in L.A. and to the social geography?” I started to convene people with backgrounds from around the world, and although it was Chicano-dominant, the rotating troupe reflected the demographics of L.A. International participants hailed from Europe, Asia, or Africa. In the process I produced photo-based pulp-novels, fotonovelas, in Europe using local performers there who could express Chicano concerns here. I worked with a troupe composed of nearly thirty performers in Mexico City. These various locations gave way to a difference of tonality and perspective. At present, I’m working on a project for the Getty comprised largely of fotonovelas, utilizing reproductions of images from the Getty’s collections, taking them into the street and designing a narrative for the overarching concept.
RT: It looks as though you employ techniques from cinéma vérité or from unscripted kinds of experimental theater; and I’ve noticed many of the actions take place on the roof level of open-air garages.
HGJ: That’s a work I produced with a group of performers in Berlin last year. We used a site that was built immediately after the Berlin Wall had come down, and the location provided an elevated view of West Berlin. It suggested a place of mass execution, or a dancehall, and in our actions we alluded to both possibilities. Over ten years, and by means of interventions like these, Virtual Vérité created brief videos designed primarily for the small screen, sometimes for projection. Very few were ever uploaded online. The idea was for the videos to exist for a fleeting moment before being entirely removed. It relates to the concept of the mirage: something seen but never altogether verified. I like the idea of planting something on the Internet, having it referenced somewhere in a critical or scholarly context, then deleting the object altogether. Only the reference survives; the source is erased from the record. My practice has been about eliminating some of the evidence but not all of it.
This method has something to do with the topography of L.A—with tectonic shifting. With enough earthquakes, you have to rename Northridge Street and call it Eastridge Street. In L.A. one thing gets layered over another, buried or completely lost. I found the Sixth Street Bridge (overlooking the Los Angeles River) so fascinating because it had been such an important monument for me living in Boyle Heights; having spent my life crossing that bridge, then finding out it would have to be demolished. It always seemed like the most iconic of all landmarks. As result, Virtual Vérité endured for an additional year, enough time for us to interact with the built environment and social imagination of the Sixth Street Bridge.
RT: When your work is discussed in an art world context, your writings are rarely in the foreground. I would say the writing is central to the practice. What’s remarkable about Urban Exile is the breadth of form. The works defy category—fictions, poems, scripts, entries, direction for collaborative acts, and all of the above.
HGJ: Yeah, had they been a baby, they would have been drowned at birth! More recently I’ve written a few stories for a book-length collection. When I looked at them again, it was actually the day I sent out an email to disband Virtual Vérité. One of the things I really enjoyed doing for a long time was writing plays, but theater in L.A. is so corrupted by Hollywood. I used to do theater more or less anywhere, but it became too dependent on performers showing up, and it became too dependent on people memorizing lines. So I adapted my style of doing theater, where I didn’t really need actors or rehearsal time; you just had to be there on the day of the show. For two or three plays I gave the performers the text while the audience was already seated, and the curtain was down. We’d do a run-through, lift up the curtains, and hope for the best. Some turned out very well, others were disastrous—but for me it was the most fun.
RT: The idea of the unscripted points to the Chicano Male Unbonded series. The viewer need not know who these particular men are, but you get a sense that these are honorific portraits of artists and writers. Almost all are photographed at night, almost always in a kind of spaces that could be deemed as potentially dangerous, suggested both by the location and through lighting.
HBJ: I shoot at night with the available light sources, and I use a high-speed film. I can make anyone look dangerous, but the setting is contingent on the way the light is distributed. There tends to be a single light source that dominates, and then a subtle diffusion. And because I used a wide-angle lens, there’s an implied vanishing point—both physical and psychological—if the subject isn’t properly centered the body becomes distorted.
RT: Even when centered, the figures seem to elongate, with the space around them warping.
HBJ: The whole thing is warped, and the whole notion of being a Chicano male on the street is warped, basically, on account of social conditions. It’s the notion of a man alone, repeated over and over again.
RT: But it’s a study as well, that looks at different kinds of masculinity. The series dates back to 1991. Is there something that you look for in your male subjects? Are they always necessarily people you know?
HBJ: I just recently photographed this guy. His name is Angelo Gomez. He’s a painter, a former student of mine, always dressed up, totally decked out, looking like a 1950s chola. I asked him, “Do you identify as male or female?” He says, “Neither.” Regardless, I asked him, “Well, do you mind posing for me? The resulting images from that session are amazing. In general I know my subjects, or have observed them in some capacity. I look for ephemeral things that in some way denote dignity. It has to do with the lighting.
I’ll soon work with Father Richard Estrada, a priest in L.A. and an outspoken immigrant rights activists. He’s in his 70s and he just got arrested the other day on the news There have been some guys, when I tell them, “I’d like to photograph you. You should meet me here,” they show up with three other cars—a reinforcement team because they might think I’m going to kill them. And then, there’s been one or two occasions when wives show up because they’re jealous or something. One guy brought his girlfriend, who was older than his mother, and she delayed the session for hours because she was plucking every piece of lint off his shirt. It’s a little study of that. And then, there’s been one or two guys that, once I photograph them, they never speak to me again because it was—
RT: Too close? An attitude never previously exposed until now.
HBJ: Absolutely, they offer a glimpse into something innermost, even though they allow me exhibit the picture. There are those who have let me photograph them but not allowed me to show the image. A librarian named Jack Vargas, died of HIV a month after I had made the image and before I could take it to him. He never saw it. I produce only a few of these portraits a year; sometimes only one. Over 100 have been printed. Most printers are trained to go for neutral grey but the formal qualities I prefer are dense black.
RT: Something about the quality suggests film noir, something cinematic. I think you’re definitely going for a kind of psychological impact. It looks as though, in your interaction, you allow the subjects to inhabit a kind of larger-than-life performance, or to indulge in role-play.
HBJ: There’s one artist that I photographed, Vincent Ramos. I met him at CalArts right before he graduated, and he makes these really terrific drawings. He’s a very brilliant guy, very personable, but when the image came out, he looked like he could just beat the hell out of you. That’s not him, but that’s who he is in this photograph. It’s as though he were channeling his grandfather, who, it turns out, was a boxer. Maybe the thing is I actually see my subjects that way. I have a tendency to see people as they could or should be. But in the end, it’s still them without really violating their space. Instead, I advance with the idea of affecting the viewer. The context is heightened, now in particular.
RT: You mean for an image to be able to convey that kind of power?
HBJ: I mean heightened in the jolt that is our current political climate. We have a president who began his campaign by saying that Mexicans are rapists, criminals and thieves, and a head of the Justice Department who refers to us as filth. Nor is it any comfort to realize that a considerable part of our population actually believes this. The point now is to continue fulfilling our goals and dreams regardless. All you need to do is switch to Spanish-language television and realize that we’re beautiful and smart.
I teach Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge. One of my assignments every year since it opened in 1997, is to send my students to the Getty Center, where they are prompted to select their favorite Chicano artwork on display or in the Getty collections, and to write a paper about it. When they get there, they discover there is no Chicano art there. If they inquire about the Chicano art, they’re asked to leave or look elsewhere. It’s their first encounter with institutional authority and exclusion in which they are positioned as the “Other.” But it’s also the first time they ever get such an elevated viewpoint of the city and how beautiful it is; and you can see the ocean. That actually strikes them too, because once they come down, they’ll never stop thinking about what it will take to get back up again. And what’s it going to take to put a work of Chicano art in the Getty. For me, that’s the greatest lesson.