Painter and video artist Mauricio Abad, left, with fellow Cuban artist Celia González. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
How about a taste of Cuban culture to start off the new year? Right now there are five artists – conceptual/new media artists – developing their various projects at the El Segundo Museum of Art. On most days, the curious visitor can stop by the building on Main Street to see the works-in-progress by Celia & Yunior, Mauricio Abad, Fidel García, and Dennis Izquierdo. It all comes to a head on Saturday, Jan. 11, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., when the doors are flung open and we can view the fruits of their endeavors.
Before then, however, one of the artists has a surprise for us. On Monday he’ll be presenting his latest work, in a medium known as video mapping or projection mapping, outdoors at El Segundo High School.
Mauricio Abad was born in Havana in the mid-1980s. He was surrounded by art and artists from a very early age. “My mom is an actress,” he says. “My dad used to be a filmmaker in Cuba but now he’s a TV producer in Mexico City.”
Abad’s regimen of art education, the equivalent of high school and college, spanned more than a decade.
“I still consider myself a painter,” he explains, “but for eight years now I’ve been focused on video – video art, mostly, as well as music videos and audio-visual design for live shows, live concerts.”
To earn his university degree, Abad shot a feature-length experimental film, which in part explored the relationship between art and entertainment. This also seems to be his current interest and focus. As he describes it, art over the past 50 or 60 years has tended to alienate the average person.
“Traditional mediums like sculpture or painting are for elite audiences because most people do not have the knowledge [or the wherewithal to comprehend] the language of a painting, and audiences most of the time are limited to saying ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it.’ Most audiences don’t know what is behind that image.
“The video art field gives me the option to mix up the languages a little.” Abad continues, enabling him to blend in cinema, television, and even less formal media. “It’s like a pop culture attitude. In my work I have two artists who are kind of gurus for me, and one of those is Andy Warhol. That’s kind of the inspiration, let’s say. The other one would be Marcel Duchamp.”
Have at it, Havana
Mauricio Abad and the other four artists at the El Segundo Museum of Art have known each other for several years. “We are close friends,” Abad says. “We’re working together thanks to Bernhard Zuenkeler, who traveled to Havana and met with more than 100 artists, and he chose the five of us.”
Zuenkeler not only curates the shows in El Segundo, but has his own gallery in Berlin; and so the Cuban artists have previously been exhibited there as well.
“Sting,” as the museum’s Experience 07 is called, “is based on the idea of involving people in the creation and production of the pieces.” He means that the process is open to public viewing. “Most of the time this moment is hidden from the audience, [but] we wanted people to get involved in that moment. And when they show up at the finissage (the official public unveiling) they’ll see a finished exhibition.” Those who stop in beforehand can watch the artists at work “and they can have contact with us,” Abad says, “like we’re having now.”
He goes on to point out that he and his fellow artists, all of whom probably came to their artistic maturity in the new century, do not work in a traditional manner. “I think for the five of us it’s a more [process-oriented] kind of art. But each of us has his own way to display it.”
Mauricio Abad shares his video expertise with El Segundo students. Photo courtesy the El Segundo Museum of Art
Apart from Monday’s video mapping event, Abad is pursuing two very different projects. “One of them is named ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something.’ It would be an app for a smart phone that has a list of more than 300 Cuban artists who live and work in Havana right now.”
It has something to do with a pre-recorded phone message, perhaps what you’d find on someone’s answering machine, in which the caller hears “Forget about the future.” As Abad says, the message – that is, the other message – is “to make people realize that they have to take care of the present.” Ultimately, though, as I understand this conceptual undertaking, a certain sense of confusion and paranoia will ensue. And, from what I can gather, the Cuban art elite are again at the sharp end of the stick. Abad clarifies it somewhat by saying that there are images we see with our eyes and images we see in our mind, or with our mind’s eye.
Not having experienced it for myself, “I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something” sounds to me like conceptual art rubbing hands with performance art, with a certain element of the impish and the mischievous.
The other project is a little easier to grasp.
“I’m making a photographic research about the blue butterfly from El Segundo,” Abad says.
The elusive blue butterfly, he notes, “has kind of the same place in the world that El Segundo has for L.A.,” which could imply that the city may be extinct in a few years! For the moment, however, there are three preserves, or colonies, where the fragile creatures are battling the whims of evolution. Meanwhile, El Segundo sits on its own piece of land, threatened not by pollution or other wildlife, but by LAX, Chevron, and (Abad says jokingly) white sharks.
On another level, the notion of the preserve, or reserve as in reservation, includes Cuba because, Abad says, “living in Cuba is like living in a bubble. You don’t have real contact with the whole development of society, internationally speaking… Occidentally speaking. That’s bad from many sides, but at the same time it’s good ‘cause at the end we will have some kind of tenderness, some kind of innocence, and some kind of pure soul. I go two or three times a week to the reserve area, to the surroundings – it’s not allowed to go in. I talk to people who live here and they have never seen a [blue] butterfly. So at the same time it’s kind of a mystery.”
This is a mockup of what Monday’s video mapping project at El Segundo High School may look like.
This is my story
Video mapping or projection mapping is both an art and a science, because if one is projecting an image, moving or otherwise, onto any kind of surface, the projectors need to take into account the irregularities of the surface. Naturally, flat, smooth surfaces are easiest, but if the surface is the rough façade of a building where there are curves and indents or window niches, then mathematics needs to come strolling in.
Abad says that, with Marcel Márquez, he co-founded the first video mapping collective in Cuba, and claims that it’s been hard work because access to the necessary technology is not an easy matter. “We managed to find out how to do it,” Abad says, and that was by eventually getting in touch with one of the software companies in Holland. Right now they’ve got an eight-man crew and in addition to their aesthetic explorations they support themselves as a commercial enterprise.
When Abad proposed a video mapping project to Bernhard Zuenkeler, the curator gave him a green light.
Not knowing El Segundo, Abad suggested using the façade of the El Segundo Museum of Art. Zuenkeler, however, said no, and mentioned that the local high school had “beautiful architecture. It’s historical because many films have been shot there. Let’s do it there.”
The location was one thing, but after arriving in L.A. Abad faced another dilemma.
“I had to figure out what story to tell there. Almost every story that I came up with was [about myself]. It’s like, yeah, I’m Cuban, I live in Cuba; no matter how much you can travel in the world you are from the place you live.”
He realized that his story would not be applicable or might not resonate with the stories of those people who have spent their lives in El Segundo. “I belong to a generation of Cuban artists who don’t like to complain about the difficulties of living in Cuba. We are more like ‘We’re heading to the future and trying to solve our daily basic problems and to achieve something in the future.’ Those kinds of stories have nothing to do with El Segundo.”
Abad continues: “And so I said, I have to get in touch with the kids in the school, because the kids who are studying in the school are the owners of the school while they are studying there. So their history is the history to tell.”
He subsequently made contact with the school and met with over 100 students, and he carefully listened to what they had to say about themselves. “With their ideas,” Abad says, “I’m pulling all the things together to tell their story. They are the writers of the script, I’m kind of the director of the film. That’s the process right now.”
The film was not yet complete when we spoke at the end of last week, but I believe it will be around 12 minutes in length with five sections that reveal the various concerns that these particular children have, which presumably aren’t as dire as those facing the blue butterfly. Airplanes, the ocean, Chevron… it seems that the basic entity that is El Segundo informs the backbone of the film project.
Abad had posed the question: “What do you want to see on the front wall of your school?” – and we’ll know the answers to that soon enough. “If I was a teenager and I was in school,” he adds, “and if I had a chance to tell my story to the world, [where] I’m living right now, in that moment, this sounds like a great chance.”
It’s also one of the many ways in which the museum has been engaging the community, both the immediate community and the coastal towns around it.
Mauricio Abad and the El Segundo Museum of Art present the Video Mapping Project at 7 p.m. on Monday at El Segundo High School, 640 Main St., El Segundo. Free. (424) 277-1020 or go to ESMoA.org.