Issue #33-34, 2009

What Are We Before We Are Naturalized? A Journal of Non-Linear Activity From the Naturalizations Series(2002 – ongoing)
Pedro Lasch

Naturalizations is a work in progress based on the production and distribution of a set of masks, which are used in specific social situations. The masks are rectangular mirrors with slits in the eye and mouth areas, and elastic suspenders, which enable the users to move around freely while wearing them. One may also think of these mirrors as pages of a book, dispersed in time and space, fractured and reconfigured by social experience and experimentation.

The initial perception created by the masks is one of spatial and psychological confusion. Subjects are reversed if only one person is wearing the mask. If several people wear them and look at each other, their faces disappear and transform into an endless set of reflections of other mirrors, other faces, environments, and objects. Landscape and subject are one and many. Subjects are inseparable from each other, their bodies dismembered by rectangular planes departing and arriving through reflected gazes. Light breaks and travels on these masks with unpredictable speed and variety. Space and movement become counter-intuitive.

The masks force us to adapt to a new physical reality, one which denies what has become “natural”. The substitution of the facial marker of individuality for a sign of constant change and reflection results in the erasure of one kind of subjectivity, only to formulate a new set of social conditions. The hierarchical address of the observer, the photographer, and the interviewer is turned upon itself. The space behind the camera is made visible. A dancing group wearing the masks decides to perform for its own pleasure, or for the reflection of their audience. The daily balance between extroverted and introverted actions becomes a tangible visual rhythm. The mask is the new stage, framed by the theater of the everyday. The temporary opening of these spatial constructions where viewers and authors are free to switch places, may also reflect on the merit of collective efforts and the fallacy of ontology.

The process and title of the series Naturalizations also invites to constantly question “the natural” and those institutions – religious, mythological or governmental – which claim not only to know what is “natural”, but are even ready to issue their own stamps of “naturalization”.

The photographs reproduced here all come from a growing photographic archive of hundreds of images taken during dozens of workshops and social activities I hold every year in collaboration with organizations and individuals of different ages and backgrounds. These activities can be short or long, but always include the use of the masks and a group conversation about the experience after using them, as well as other topics considered relevant or interesting to the group. The workshops and conversations have happened in a more than ten countries, and a large variety of contexts: streets, immigrant protests, cafeterias and bars, community centers, lecture halls and seminars, public parks, private parties, muse­ums and galleries, therapy sessions, professional gatherings, and more. These images, together with other elements of the archive, such as texts, statements, and other materials I create over time, constitute The Journal of Non-Linear Activity. All the selections that follow belong to this “journal”. None of these photographs has ever been published before, even though some of them date back to 2002. The groupings of photographs included, represent a visual and social archive, as well as a non-linear and unruly discursive structure. Below each grouping are short captions providing information on the nature, date, and location of each collective action. Each page also contains one short statement from a series of writings in relation to “masking” and the notion of the “natural” that I have been developing since 2002.

All photographs have been taken by the artist or Esther Gabara, unless otherwise noted.

Our mask denounces our invisibility.

December 19, 2002. Jackson Heights, New York, USA. Artist Ricardo Dominguez performs Subcomandante Marcos’ story of The Book of Mirrors for students and community members at the first exhibition and public event of the New York edition of the experimental program Art, Story-Telling & the Five Senses [El arte, el cuento y los cinco sentidos], founded and directed by Pedro Lasch with Asociación Tepeyac de NY and Mexi­ca­nos Unidos de Queens.

The world’s worst criminals do not wear masks.

May 5, 2006. New York, USA. Images from Dances and Theaters of Everyday Life, a workshop for the yearly gathering of New York City high­school art teachers. Shown here are teachers reenacting The Execution of Maximiliano, in a piece of the same title installed at the Queens Museum of Art for Lasch’s exhibition Open Routines. Museum visitors were able to create this tableau vivant on their own throughout the four-month dura­tion of the show.

The mask erases the division between portrait and landscape.

December 15, 2009. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Workshops and conversations with artists and neighbors from the world renowned Grand Rue com­mu­­nity. Represented are (clockwise from top left): Grand Rue artists Louko*, Cheby, Celeur, and Jerry (using their artistic names here).

* Louko was tragically killed in the January 2010 earthquake, a few weeks after this photograph was taken.

We play with the mask and discover new spaces, formerly closed by the history of our faces.

December 4, 2007. Durham, NC, USA. Shown are students from Kristine Stiles’ course Introduction to Visual Culture. They are experimenting with the masks at The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University during a guest lecture and workshop by Pedro Lasch entitled The Poverty of the Visual.

The ontological self is impossible in the logic of the mask.

March 21, 2007. Durham, NC, USA. Students of El Centro Hispano’s Youth Program during an evening workshop entitled (Why) Are We Latino/as?

Warning: The mask may reflect the ugly face of power.

June 17, 2009. Durham, NC, USA. Choreographer Mark Dendy and his dancers rehearse and perform the site-specific collaboration with Pedro Lasch, Can You Restate That in the Form of A Question? staged throughout the Durham Center for the Performing Arts for the 2009 American Dance Festival.

The face’s frame does not allow linear narratives.

February 15, 2008. Carrboro, NC, USA. Stills from a video produced in a series of ten weekly workshops with the bilingual public highschool arts collective “Los Artistas” at the Carrboro Arts Center. These and other collaborations with them were shown at Pedro Lasch’s exhibition El Sur Comes South.

The mask distributes power among those who use it.

May 2, 2003. Queens, New York, USA. Students performing their original science fiction folkloric ballet entitled The Dance of Mirrors [La Danza de los Espejos]. This work was produced for the second exhibition and public event of the New York edition of the experimental program Art, Story-Telling & the Five Senses [El arte, el cuento y los cinco sentidos], founded and directed by Pedro Lasch with Asociación Tepeyac de NY and Mexicanos Unidos de Queens.

The mask is our entryway to collective being.

June 26, 2006. Seoul, South Korea. Participants use masks during public talk and workshop at INSA Art Space. Entitled Between US: Faces and Borders, the event was part of a series of gatherings with Pedro Lasch throughout South Korea in preparation for 16 Beaver’s Between Us, a colla­borative work produced later that year at the 2006 Gwangju Biennial: The Last Chapter_Trace Route: Remapping Global Cities.

They say the camera is a mirror with a memory. The mask inevitably incorporates the agent and apparatus of this memory.

August 6, 2007. Greensboro, NC, USA. Workshop at Elsewhere, a living museum and experimental space set in a former thrift store where things are constantly rearranged by a changing cast of visiting artists, curators, and writers. Shown here are George Scheer, Stephanie Sherman, Cameron Ayres, and participants of Elsewhere’s 2007 residency program, as well Walter Benjamin, who looks down in the top left image from above the bookshelves.

If eyes on lips and lips on eyes… why not tongues on ears and ears on noses?

September 20, 2008. Cary, USA. Special workshop at the Lucy Daniels Foundation developed in collaboration with the North Carolina Pyschoanalytic Foundation for their International Exchange Program with special guest Alejandro Salamonovitz, Ph.D. (Mexico). The use of the masks was paired with a collective exploration of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and its ground-breaking social application by Dr. Salamonovitz in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Each mask is a page whose writing is always in the making, always changing by what it captures of its surroundings, always new in what it filters for the viewing of its concealed readers.

December 15, 2009. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Workshop on conceptual art, Frantz Fanon, South-South exchanges, and doing something out of nothing. Participants included students and staff from the non-profit organization APROSIFA, and artists Rose-Anne “Lodi” Auguste (Haiti) and Seitu Jones (USA).

How to paint a portrait of the Lord of Mirrors?

February 21, 2007. Durham, USA. Workshop for sociologist Michaeline Crichlow and the students of her Duke University seminar on “Masks, Masque­­rades and Popular Culture in the Americas”. The course seeked to unmask and reinterpret masked performances or rituals by examining their styles and ferreting out their meanings when they are performed at particular calendrical times, like Carnival, and outside of that Carnival time as well.

The pages of this book of mirrors are scattered in social space and time. The book’s chapters can only be brought together by collective use, memory and imagination.

April 14, 2007, Raleigh, USA. Workshop and keynote address for the first “North Carolina Latino Arts & Culture Summit”. Participants came from across the State and included artists, musicians, cultural producers, teachers, students, activists, journalists, and policy makers. North Carolina has been the State in the USA with the largest immigration of people from Latin America for the last two decades.

Worn freely, masks can be philosophical tools and emancipatory weapons. When imposed, masking is a psychologically violent inscription of the structures of power on the individual and the social body.

February 12, 2003. Queens, New York, USA. Dance rehearsal and video workshop on media and mediations for the New York edition of the program Art, Story-Telling & the Five Senses [El arte, el cuento y los cinco sentidos], founded and directed by Pedro Lasch with Asociación Tepeyac de NY and Mexicanos Unidos de Queens. Over sixty students each received a mask to keep, using them regularly for programmed and spontaneous experimental activities.

The mask is a letter with three holes in it.

December 16, 2009. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Open activities throughout the day in the central area of the Grand Rue artistic community. The day-long exchanges were part of the “Ghetto Biennale” in Haiti, happening for the first time in 2009, and bringing local artists, activists, and scholars in dialogue with international ones.

It’s about mythologies, naturally...

June, 2002 – present. Personal gatherings at the studio, restaurants, cafeterias, public and private spaces. Soon after the completion of the first working prototypes of mirrormasks in 2002 (they were originally designed in 1995), these masks have been regulary used in smaller gatherings with friends, artists, activists, intellectuals, and people from all walks of life. As an exampe we see above a gathering between Andrés Gaitán Tobar, Ricardo Arcos Palma, Esther Gabara, and Pedro Lasch at the cafeteria of the National University of Bogotá, Colombia on August 24, 2009.

Through the mask, the self is recognized in the other.

May 1, 2005, Chicago & March 12, New York, USA. Performance of Statements on Masking (Enunciados sobre la máscara) at Polvo Gallery in Pilsen, Chicago and Queens Museum in New York. In this mixture of a language class and a manifesto reading the artist wears a mask while another one circulates among the audience. Participants find their own reflection in the teacher’s mask, reading out statements in Spanish and English as best they can.