Work in Progress: Lucia Cuba

Lucia Cuba, our October Work in Progress resident, and I Skyped late one night to chat about her series “Wearables for/to protest,” the third part of her ongoing “Exercises on Health” (EoH) project.

“Hola!” said her chat bubble, “do I call you or the other way around?”

I set up my three individual recording devices and called her. Her daughter was asleep, so we talked in low voices, until she woke up by the end of the interview.

S: Take me through a normal work day for you. In a previous interview with TAC, you mentioned coffee and loud music as staples.

L: It’s funny because that interview is from 2013, or 2012, and it’s still pretty much the same. In terms of general activities, I split my time between my kid, my independent projects and, working as a full-time faculty at Parsons. Whenever I’m not in my studio space, I’m in at the university teaching or working on something related to academia, or at home. But it is a common thread that I need coffee and loud music to work, regardless of the activity I’m engaged in. Of course, when I’m teaching I can’t do that, but whenever I’m doing anything like writing, or reflecting on teaching, preparing for a class, or playing with my kid that becomes a great motivator.

In terms of engaging in a creative process and its environment, I do need that type of set up. I’ve become more used to the idea of sharing studio spaces in the past five years, and with that comes a lot of amazing opportunities, but also understanding in what ways you can -and not- focus the most. For me, focusing or “going to the zone” also comes in the form of music and headphones, and trying to be in a very symbolic space when I’m already into an idea. I don’t tempt to sketch or draw too much, but I do develop a good amount of time into researching before I jump into any other process. For example, at this stage, the process of making will be absolutely influenced by reflecting upon the research and how this is translated in terms of materials, colors, and techniques that I engage with.

And from that point on, for example, I start making decisions on what information I’m going to move forward with and what I’m going to leave aside, at least in terms of what can help me to materialize or to create a body form out of that intellectual process. I also tend do a lot of editing and curation of the work as I go, even in the context of process works, not just towards a “finished” type of outcome. I specially realized that in the context of my latest project, the one that I’m working on at WIP right now, where I’m using text in a very explicit way, which is something recurrent in my works. The more I work with text, the more challenging experience I have selecting what exactly to include. If it’s not a text coming out from a source different than me, I create text from my reflection process and then putting it down into a physical form,to later on continue editing within the physical form itself, both in the context of the material, the form and the overall experience I would like to create. It becomes a conversation between the text, the materiality, volume, weight, and a lot of other layers of how everything is built and what it may be understood as. I don’t have a formula and I don’t of course always follow the same steps, but everything informs everything at that point.

And, as mentioned earlier, in the context of being very nomadic with my studio spaces — I’ve been doing a lot of residencies lately and it’s been tricky to be able to bring with me every type of material that I could work with- unless I’m in a very specific stage of a project where I’m , for example, taking letters that I’ve already cut out, as I did for this project, or when I know exactly what I need to weave … And even in “production mode”, I have moments of realization, like ‘oh this should absolutely go into the project,’ which is usually what happens…

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S: What do you think of being at TAC so far? How do you think working in the space will affect your work?

L: I started this year by doing an art residency at the Museum of Arts and Design, in one very specific type of space (inside the museum and open to the public at all times). Then I went to BRIC Arts Media for a summer residency, where I was working in private and in a massive physical space , and now I come to WIP at TAC in a space that is “small” but that has so much light and movement outside. This space -as you know- has a massive window where passers can take at look at what’s going on inside…. And it’s such a busy street!

There’s a “sense of street” but in a controlled form because you’re still working behind the window. This is also important because it allows you to take time and think about the work when exposed, while exposed.( ..) It’s interesting to think about that in the symbolic process of being literally behind the window, with work that I’ve been working on since the beginning of the year, at a completely different stage (…) On the other hand, to symbolically place this work outside. The idea for me will be to activate these pieces by the end of the year. Doing so this end of the year will be a symbolically important for me, specially in the context of reflecting upon all of this work transitions through different residency programs that are appreciating ideas coming from design, craft, art, and especially fiber and clothing, in the context of political conversations around health, gender, sexual and reproductive rights, etc.(…) and it’s going to be really important for me to see the work finally materialized, in the way in which I had envisioned this whole year.

I always recall that it was at TAC -while doing their long term art residency in 2012- that  I learned how to weave, and fully understood how important it was to develop my own cloth. At TAC I learned about how to reflect upon fibers and crafts in a way that I had not understood  before(…) I believe there is a very honest set of processes that take place in this particular community that are absolutely important and valuable for anyone, especially those of us interested in reflecting upon the materiality, techniques, knowledge, and overall feeling of being in connection with a manual process… and in an absolutely organic process of sharing how relevant it is to not only acknowledge, but to learn from crafts. (…)

Being part of TAC’s WIP also makes me feel that I am continuing a process that started in 2013, right after finishing the residency and moving out of NY, and that I have now the opportunity to reconnect with, after moving back to NY in 2015.

Lucia Cuba wearable

S: Your relationship with Peru is such an important part of your work. Being between cultures and moving between countries, how do you maintain a connection to your cultural heritage in a way that feels important to you?

L: I try to think about my connection with Peru not only in terms of my cultural heritage, but especially in the context of the current history and social debates. I’m a Peruvian citizen, I like to think -and act-  actively in local debates. In fact, the work I’ve been doing over the past 10 years, including the work I’ve been developing since I’ve not been based in Lima (where I am from) has been absolutely engaged with local and current debates.

Also, after moving out of Peru, I came to understand my role as a Latin American citizen, which before I moved-out I didn’t recognized. I mean, you “call it out” but you don’t really feel it, not in the same way in which I feel it now. For example, I’m definitely much more connected to the idea of belonging to a region, rather than just a country, to the idea of belonging to a few languages, rather than just one.. And, for sure, I’m much more aware of the idea of thinking about my own citizenship, being and not being physically in the place I’m thinking or reflecting upon(…) I always try to think about my limitations in this context, to think about why I want to address and in what way I will be able to do so, while not being physically present. This is, for example, a recurrent question in my work.

I would love to say that from my cultural heritage I backstrap weave, but I learned to weave in 2012, at TAC in New York. Unfortunately -and as a contradiction to the amazing heritage we have in the field- it is not easy to learn how to weave in Peru, specially if you are in the coast area, like in Lima. (…)

The type of work I do responds as well to thinking about different topics that are not necessarily addressed through the lens of my country of origin or my field of practice. I try to participate in local and global debates, and to place these in conversation with creative processes that may come from different disciplines, and that may allow me -and others- to participate and contribute to these conversations. The ways in which I materialize these uses different tools – from social research tools, to craft-design tools such as weaving, screen printing, embroidery, etc.- a mixed of these creates the foundation of the work and processes I want to engage in and that I want people to invite the public to be engaged with as well.

S: How has your role as an educator influenced your role as a designer?

I don’t see those being separated, and at this point it’s hard to think about which one came first. I’ve been teaching at the university level since 1998, but the more I teach and develop an artistic career, the more I understand both sides completely in connection with one another. Performing an as educator – whether in a formal or non-formal way- I like to trigger ideas and conversations, to provoke, whether it’s by the aesthetic engagement to a piece or whether it’s by the topic, I like to think that I facilitate processes in which people connect with emotions and information (…) For example, I try to always creating digital platforms for each one of my projects (this becomes an opportunity to engage people you are working with, in different conversations that might go beyond the work created), and I also try to actively share the processes behind the work ( from participating in conferences, panels and lecturers, writing academic essays, etc.). At the same time, activating my work in the public space, as well as facilitating workshops in which there is another opportunity for people to engage with theses processes and conversations, to reflect on these, and to create their own (…).

S: What kind of impact do you hope to achieve through your art work? When creating, is there a specific audience you have in mind, specific environments where you would like to see your work shown?

L: I like to think that my work can trigger conversations, and that these can exist -and be reflected upon- anywhere, regardless of where is shown or activated (…).

Nonetheless, there are two main things I always keep in mind, regardless of what project I am working on, or where this will be activate from. On one hand, I like to think that people can engage with my work from its aesthetics, and on the other, that they can be able to engage with the work because of it’s meaning and informative relevance. I don’t think about these as separate, but I do try to have both in mind while developing it. (…) Every time I place something that I consider to be finished, I try for it to give the opportunity for these ways of engaging. In this context,  for example, using language in the form of text. This is a recurrent element in my work and one of the tools intentionally use to engage with, both conceptually and literally. With this in mind in my creative process I play with graphic design, typography, and multiple languages.

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S: I’m glad we got to talk about language a little bit. When you were speaking about writing and your work at TAC right now, I was reminded of this Barbara Kruger piece that I had seen at the Seattle Art Museum several years ago in their Elles exhibition.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (What big muscles you have!), 1983 photograph and type on paper 6 x 8 1/8 inches (15.2 x 20.6 cm)

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (What big muscles you have!), 1983
photograph and type on paper
6 x 8 1/8 inches (15.2 x 20.6 cm)

L: (…) Yes, for sure, text is and has been used greatly from different fields.(…) In the current work I’m developing I’m also trying to go beyond the idea of literal protest and the forms of protesting. I am trying to call things out, to criticize them, but specially to propose and rethink the mediums through which we generally protest. To go beyond the act of using a propaganda-like white T-shirt, to also rethink the ways in which we can engage in protesting, and trigger multiple conversations while wearing. (…)

I like to make my pieces that can think about multiple ways of engaging audiences. For example, not everyone is interested in color determination, or in materials, or shapes, or typography, or the technique, but I like to think I develop the work with all of these as options. (…) As mentioned earlier, this two main spaces where I like for anyone interpreting, using, activating or thinking about the work I’m developing has to do with both, their reflective critical possibility of thinking about the piece, and the aesthetics of it. (…) And, my overall goal is to be able to impact in public health policy with the work.

S: What through your practice has surprised you?

L: Well, first to understand all of my insecurities as a creator! It wasn’t until just a few years ago  that I started to develop a stronger “sense of self” as an artist, which might be a good thing and a terrible thing at the same time, I don’t know. But there is an individual/personal process before something is going to come out “of the closet”, the window, you’re kitchen table or from wherever you’re working from, that allows you to learn and keep on growing, and that provides you with a proper -and sometimes overwhelming- amount of insecurity that is also very helpful to later on reflect upon your work, and learn from your very emotional self, on how you would like to develop it further.

(…) And well, now I am also very surprised about “time to create”, as a space to be in/with, a sense of luxury that I can’t afford to have that often. The concept of time for me has drastically shift since having a kid. (…) and now, the need for time, the idea of time, in the context of creative work and practice and how to negotiate that with everything else, from your personal life to your creative practice, your creative practice as your personal life as well is always very challenging. Also the dedication and responsibility of the how, why, in what ways (…) and if it’s even going to come out, to materialize and be activated…

(…) The other thing that I am always surprised of is people’s reaction to the work, positive or negative — it always seems like that first day in 2004, the first time I saw someone walking down the street with something I had made. At the point I had a commercial brand and someone bought one of the dresses I made, and I absolutely remember looking at that person, thinking, ‘oh-my-God, someone is actually using something that I did!’ And that feeling is always there. Even now considering I don’t work in a commercial space in that way any more, but activating my work more from the economy of sharing. Regardless of how, whenever I see the pieces being displayed it’s just amazing— .

Since the latest presidential campaign in Peru (2016) one activist, Victoria Vigo, who is also one of the woman affected by forced sterilization that took place in Peru almost 20 years ago, and an active spokesperson in this case against Alberto Fujimori in the fight for justice, asked me if she could lend and wear a set of pieces to protest Fujimori and his daughter, who was a presidential candidate at that point (in this context, a set of protests were organized across Peru against the Fujimori’s). I said, of course, if you want to, feel free to use and return them when you’re done. She started using the pieces in multiple protest. I had no idea that was going to become her recurrent wearable to protest. It was -and still is- an amazing, beautiful thing to have experience — not that any other person who has activated any other or the same piece has not had the same impact on me in terms of being amazed, surprised and grateful – but, first  knowing that Victoria Vigo finds these pieces relevant to her protest, and then looking at images of her wearing these particular pieces and in that particular context: a social protest about those specific topics that the pieces were talking about …  it made me feel very connected with this dimension of the work, where she reenacts and elevates a set of other messages using these wearables as support (…) Every time I see an image of her with wearing those pieces … I don’t even have words for that.

Victoria Vigo’s activation came almost 4 years after Lady Gaga used the same series of pieces during an interview on MTV, and, just as then, but in a completely different way, these type of activations allow me to learn more and more about the ways in which garments, cloth and people are aware of/learn from/ and/or reclaim agency through clothing.

[Eline van Nes /Al Jazeera]

Victoria Vigo wearing Lucia Cuba’s dress, alongside protesters who painted their legs red to symbolize forced sterilizations under former President of Peru Alberto Fujimori. [Courtesy of Eline van Nes /Al Jazeera]

It’s overall amazing to see the work being relevant for someone else (rather than me). And I do believe that not only fibers but cloth and clothes’ agency is something we generally underestimate (…) The agency of cloth is underestimated in the way in which it actually impacts our life from the moment that we are born. Looking at cloth in the form of clothes, or clothing, and now being aware of how impactful that can be (…) helps me to think about how many different opportunities are out there for them to reclaim our own social and personal experience with and through them. Also, being more aware of them as a process or as a medium, is something I hope to continue sharing, to allow for people to experience that from my work as well, in the same way I do…

S: What is the future for your art?

One thing that I’ve came to be worried about – shamefully just a few years ago- is how delicate and irresponsible it was to continue making/producing stuff … Regardless of whether this is done in a commercial sphere or not, I’m making stuff that’s going to eventually have impact in the environment, and that is directly going to impact the landfill. That’s is also one of my concerns now, it is for sure embedded in the work process itself, but I’m trying to continue exploring alternative ways in which I can reuse materials (not only using new materials) as well as on how to create overall experiences that may allow general public to engage in these type of conversations through my work as well.

Additionally, the more I continue exploring how me and others are engaging with the work made, as well as how we all engage with clothes and cloth, the more I understand that I have to work harder in learning from and collaborating with multiple communities working around the topics I like to approach.

I also like to think that I’m reconnecting/reclaiming my public health and social psychology background. I call it out as I gain more self-esteem in the design space, and this is a personal interpretation of it, so I feel definitely much more secure about the type of processes I engage in from a design experience… I feel much more “empowered” to continue working with clothes and cloth as a medium and a form of communication. I absolutely understand this now to be my main medium of work, cloth and clothes are my medium.

Then thinking about how this can be much more effective in the contexts I want to introduce or work in. That’s always the challenge. I have a couple of activities that I like to set up once a work is developed, like photographing them, and then sharing them in the world. Then I immediately jump into more strategic placement and relocation of the work, through the lens of specific audiences.

In the short term, I am also more consciously and strategically working around the understanding of cloth as a tool for health promotion. I am engaging in more alliances in the context of civic engagement around specific topics, as well as supporting and strengthen other processes that other communities are already working on (in Peru and elsewhere). Additionally, I am working on exploring with different forms of language and technologies, specially when materializing a wearable piece, expanding these -for example- through performance and or other forms that might takes a greater role in the context of disseminating the physical work and making it into a much more audio-visual experience.

And, in the short term, being much more strategic about impacting politics around the topics that I’m trying to elevate through the work. It sounds very easy to say, of course, but it’s not.

S: It doesn’t sound easy.

L: It’s not, for sure!… But I’m confident that at some point, we will all be able to do it because we know how impactful clothing is as a channel of communication…

I will be always in the process of learning more about how we experience clothing, and about what goes beyond a commercial experience of it, beyond the lens of consumption and through the lens of identity, society-building and overall social interactions, and about how that is symbolically embedded and performed in the everyday life. And I will be always learning about how best to incorporate these type of experiences in the context of -for example- a civic fight. I hope it doesn’t take too long to rethink the ways in which currently think about dressing.

This particular project-series, “Wearables for/to protest”, is connected to these ideas. A side from the actual pieces I’m developing a series of workshops to where participants will learn how to develop their own wearables for/to protest, while reclaiming and manipulating their own clothing to wear in the context of a protest, whether it’s an actual protest on the streets or a symbolic protest that you want to take with you and invite anyone to think about.

I will be developing a workshop series at TAC at the end of the month, and I will be developing another workshop at Dream Yard and at Pioneer Works in November, and, hopefully, will be an activating the work by the end of December in Lima as well. These works are part of my ongoing project called Exercises on Health, which I expect/hope to continue being able to develop in the years to come.

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