Art In Conversation
MIGUEL LUCIANO with Media Farzin and Charles Schultz
Art writer Media Farzin and Brooklyn Rail Managing Editor Charles Schultz met up with Harlem-based artist Miguel Luciano at Uptown, the Wallach Art Gallery’s first triennial survey of artists living and working north of Manhattan’s 99th street (see review in this issue). With the Puerto Rican debt crisis as well as the controversy over legendary political activist Oscar López Rivera’s participation in the Puerto Rican parade as backdrop, we took the opportunity to discuss Luciano’s long engagement with Puerto Rican politics and history, his love of creatively refurbished bicycles, and how the two intersect in Ride or Die, Luciano’s solo exhibition of commissioned work, which was on view at Brooklyn’s BRIC gallery this past spring.
Charlie Schultz (Rail): Let’s start right at the beginning. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Miguel Luciano: I was born in 1972, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but I grew up all over the States, from Seattle to Miami and then in 2001 I came to New York.
Rail: What was the impetus of all the movement?
Luciano: I had parents in both places. My dad lived in Puerto Rico; my mom in the States. I grew up going back and forth, most of my life.
Rail: Did anyone in your family have an art practice, or what were your early artistic influences?
Luciano: I had a great-uncle in Puerto Rico who was an early influence on my work. He was kind of a folk artist. He made old houses and reproductions of places that used to exist in Puerto Rico when he was a kid in the ’30s and ’40s and even before that. They’re beautiful—very detailed kinds of objects. As a young person visiting Puerto Rico, each of those little houses came with a story about a place that had changed. In this sense, storytelling embedded in a work of art is something I experienced early on. He also painted saints on driftwood and was really dedicated to this tradition of hand painted saints. When I was in Puerto Rico I spent a lot of time with him.
Rail: The kind of storytelling that brings history alive through narratives based on objects or places seems very relevant to your practice—but let’s circle back to that. I’m still curious about your development as an artist. How did you end up going to school in Miami? What was that like?
Luciano: I moved to Miami in the ’80s because my mom, who worked for the courts, was transferred there. I went to junior high and high school in Miami and eventually to college at New World School of the Arts, and grad school at the University of Florida in the Fine Arts department.
Rail: Were you making art already?
Luciano: I was always making art. Even in junior high and high school. Whether I was the cartoonist for the local paper, or doing my own thing.
Rail: Were there any artists apart from your uncle that you looked up to or admired early on?
Luciano: I remember looking at Basquiat early on, and later came to admire artists like Juan Sánchez and Pepón Osorio. But when I was younger, I was hanging out with a lot of graffiti artists. We were painting murals in downtown Miami—and remember, this is Miami 20 years ago, when there were a lot of empty spaces. Eventually I got really interested in this idea of getting access to spaces that were under-utilized or were abandoned, from boarded-up buildings to empty lots. I started thinking about the potential of those spaces as art spaces. My interest was specifically in relation to the communities that lived around those spaces, and how communities participate directly in that process.
Rail: When you say community murals, do you mean you would involve the people in the process of painting, or you’d paint images of the community?
Luciano: Some of the early mural projects grew out of a pilot program at the college in public art. We were working in downtown communities, but art students were designing the murals. That was my early introduction to public art processes, and it got me thinking about ways to complicate these community-based projects. I started asking questions like, what does it mean to be making art on the walls of communities that you don’t live in? We were getting money from the city, for example, to address urban blight in abandoned buildings and spaces downtown, but there were other friends of mine who were artists from those neighborhoods that were painting murals in the neighborhoods that were much more relevant.
Rail: Did you think about those issues more intensely as you moved into an MFA program?
Luciano: Yes. These questions about the politics of place and space, about community agency and questioning who controls the narrative became important questions in my studio practice. This was 1998, the centennial mark of the US occupation of Puerto Rico and I was going to Puerto Rico every few months. It was a really controversial year because of our ongoing colonial history. Half the island protested the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, and half celebrated.
Rail: How did you experience it?
Luciano: I remember being at a rally in Guánica, the town that U.S. troops first landed in during the occupation. I was with pro-independence activists protesting 100 years of U.S. colonialism. Meanwhile, the Blue Angels flew overhead at a separate rally nearby, where pro-statehood supporters celebrated. Many contradictions, many tensions, and all of this informed my work in the studio at the time. I would say that it informed a lot of the work that came later too.
Rail: Was your family very political?
Luciano: My family in Puerto Rico was really into politics; my great-grandfather signed the constitution of Puerto Rico in 1952. Some support the Commonwealth, some support independence, but everyone is invested in this complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
Rail: The complicated historical and political narratives of Puerto Rico and the U.S. thread through so much of your work. Your kite project, for example, can you talk about how that started?
Luciano: The kite project started in 2002 in Vieques, which is a little island off the coast of Puerto Rico. The U.S. Navy had a base and a bombing range there; the eastern tip was used for bombing and the western tip was used for ammunition storage, while 10,000 residents were clustered in the middle. There had always been a lot of protesting against the bombing—for at least fifty years—but in 1999 a bomb from the firing range killed a civilian and that really changed the tone. People broke down the fences and occupied the bombing range. They used their bodies as human shields to prevent the bombing. It was a brave large-scale civil disobedience that lasted for about a year. Then security forces came in and arrested everybody, moved everybody out and put the fences back up and made the trespassing fines really severe.
Rail: That set the stage for your kite project?
Luciano: Yes. So, in 2002, I brought a group of Puerto Rican high school students from Brooklyn to Puerto Rico to work with their peers and do workshops—it was beautiful. We could not actually cross the fences, so the kites were an idea of transgressing that border from the sky; about sending our bodies visually attached to these kites—we printed life-sized photographic self-portraits on the face of the kites. It was a way to symbolically disrupt and reclaim that airspace and transport ourselves across the fences. It was one small project among many acts of protest by artists and activists during that time. A year later, the Navy left Vieques.
Rail: Wow. That must have felt like a huge victory.
Luciano: Absolutely. The students who participated in the kite project contributed in some small way to the energy that brought about that change.
Rail: Have you done more iterations of this kite project?
Luciano: Yes, the kite project manifested in different places, in different ways. But it was always symbolically about the same things: exploring freedom, flying, borders, and those ideas in relationship to our bodies and images of ourselves. In 2013 at the beginning of Obama’s second term, I worked with a group of undocumented activists in a project called DREAMer Kites to protest on behalf of the Dreamers and for immigration reform. We literally flew kites behind the White House. In 2012, I did another version called Amani Kites in Kenya. It was the largest version of the project to date. It was through the smARTpower Program, a community-based public art initiative of the Bronx Museum, sponsored by the State Department, which was unusual.
Rail: Let me get this straight: an art project that was created to protest the U.S. government is—years later—sponsored by the U.S. government. Is that right?
Luciano: Yes. But the Bronx Museum ran the project, and the State Department, didn’t really interfere. They just put up the money.
Rail: What was that experience like?
Luciano: The project focused on young people within informal housing communities in the industrial area of Nairobi. There were many local artists involved too. The kite workshops always begin with opening a dialogue about freedom, asking what freedom means to people, in different places. We also talk about portraiture, and ask each other questions like, what does it mean when you look at yourself? What does it mean to talk about who you are and where you’re from? What dreams do you have, and what does it mean to fly? What’s interesting is that in Kenya the conversations about identity led to larger political conversations about different kinds of tensions around issues of identity, and ethnic tensions that exist throughout the country. In this sense, there were familiar parallels to the discourses of difference and tensions around migration that come up in every country.
Rail: It must have been a little weird, introducing an art project about identity issues, when you’re there as a Westerner, representing the big and mighty United States of America.
Luciano: Right! But I’m also from Puerto Rico, a colony of the U.S. So, how do you make it not a colonial project? How do you not make it feel that way? Fortunately, the local artists, the local teachers, the local organizers and activists—they all played a big part. We had many intense conversations about colonialism, but we had fun too! And that’s important. There is a certain kind of releasing of energy with the flying of the kites; it’s healthy and playful and serious all at once. It’s fundamentally about honoring yourself. Part of it becomes about claiming your identity, your history, and personalizing that narrative. In the culminating event, we all fly the kites together. And everyone keeps their kite in the end. It’s an open-source project that ideally can continue on its own. In Kenya, local artists have continued to develop the project.
Rail: Speaking of historical narratives, this year is the centennial anniversary of Puerto Ricans becoming U.S. citizens. I know you’re planning to take part in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which is controversial this year because of the release of Oscar López Rivera.
Luciano: Yes. There has been a big campaign of misinformation in New York to discredit the legacy of Oscar López Rivera, but I will proudly be there marching with him. He was a pro-independence activist from Puerto Rico and Chicago who spent thirty-five years in prison as a political prisoner. He was a member of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), a clandestine pro-independence group in the 1970s and 80s and was charged with seditious conspiracy. He went to prison for his beliefs—independence, essentially—meaning he was convicted of a political crime. He was part of an era and a movement that was radical, but he was never accused nor convicted of any violent crime, never hurt anyone. Nevertheless, he was issued a disproportionately long sentence, of which he served more than thirty five years, twelve of those years in solitary confinement. Obama pardoned him this past January. Clinton had offered him clemency in 1999, but he refused the offer because there were two other political prisoners who were not offered commutation. Those other two political prisoners were released two years later and Oscar did another seventeen years. Pope Francis supported his release, over a dozen Nobel Peace laureates, and three former US presidents—Obama, Carter and Clinton—all supported his freedom.
Rail: He is vilified as a terrorist in some American press, like The New York Post. Reclaiming his identity, his legacy, is obviously important—and related to what you are doing in pieces like Run-a-Bout (2017).
Luciano: This bike is part of a series of bikes that commemorate the traditions of the Puerto Rican Schwinn Clubs in New York, which have been around maybe thirty years or more. The original bikes are emblems of vintage Americana, but the tradition of the clubs was to remake the bikes into symbols of Puerto Rican culture. I’ve been around those clubs a long time. What I love about that tradition is the process of re-inventing the terms of the object, how we remake something classically American into something our own.
Media Farzin (Rail): You don’t build your own bike; you make the bike yours?
Luciano: Exactly. In spite of the fact that they were manufactured in the U.S., they were some of the first bikes imported to Puerto Rico. So, for Puerto Rican migrants that came to New York in the ’50s and ’60s, through the ’70s, they remember these bikes as the bikes of their childhood on the island. So, remaking them in 2017? At the 100-year mark of our citizenship, when we find ourselves in an unprecedented debt crisis, it made sense to rethink all symbols of American modernity. It’s not just the customizing of the bike with references to Puerto Rico, but also the way they’re performed when they’re ridden in the streets. They become these spectacular visual statements of Puerto Rican pride and I love that. I love the aesthetics of the bike, but also the power of celebrating our culture, which in itself is also a form of resistance and resilience.
Rail: The historical era of the manufacturing of the bike as a state-side import seems an important element.
Luciano: At the beginning of the year, I had a solo exhibition at BRIC entitled Ride or Die that featured several new sculptures using vintage Schwinn bikes to explore the complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. The bikes I used were made between the ’50s and the ’70s, and became a way to look back at some of what was happening in Puerto Rico and here during that period. So, the year of the bike, the color of the bike, all of these things became important touchstones towards a more critical look at the history of that era.
Rail: The Run-a-Bout is green, which is the color of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP).
Luciano: It is. Run-a-Bout is from a series of bikes about the political parties in Puerto Rico. The bikes I chose are from the ’50s and ’60s, which was a formative time both here and in Puerto Rico, politically and socially. The title Run-a-Bout refers to the original 1969 model of the bike. It was Schwinn’s first portable and collapsible bike. It was promoted as the bike that would give you a greater sense of freedom because you could bring it with you wherever you wanted. Thinking about it this way, I chose it to represent the Independence Party, and the independence movement in Puerto Rico. It was the one that you could have mobility with, and be in control of. All bikes are kind of like that, that sensation, but this one had an extra element of self-determination.
Rail: What about the flag attached to the bike?
Luciano: This Run-a-Bout was originally made in 1969, a year of cultural revolution in this country and in Puerto Rico. I’m interested in the associations with the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights eras of protest. It’s also the year that the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group heavily inspired by the Black Panthers, were founded in New York. Their identity connected Blackness and Puerto Rican-ness together simultaneously without separation. It was about honoring the African presence within our own culture. By emphasizing Blackness, the cultural and racial hierarchy of Puerto Rican-ness, which is typically described as Spanish, Taíno, and African in that order, was inverted. Puerto Rican identity became reasserted as Afro-Taíno. And so the Puerto Rican flag in red, black and green, merges Black and Puerto Rican liberation and honors the African presence within our own culture. Overall, I’m very interested in the space where post-Civil Rights activism of the ’60s meets with the moment we are living in today.
Rail: And the machete that hangs off the back of the bike?
Luciano: The machete symbolizes two things. It’s a symbol of the independence movement, and it goes back to the sugar cane workers that were the first workers to be organized by Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist party, the independence movement on the island. Albizu was an Afro-Puerto Rican political leader who fought against the tyranny of U.S. sugar corporations. In the 1930s, he led an island-wide agricultural strike and successfully increased wages for sugar cane workers. The machete, which was the tool for the laborers, became the symbol of resistance. It is both a tool and potentially, a weapon.
Rail: What about the many horns on this bicycle?
Luciano: It’s a small bike, but it’s meant to be seen and heard.
Schultz (Rail): The idea, or theme, of being heard seems to pop up frequently in your work. In addition to the horns on the Run-a-Bout, your piece When Hens Pee (2003) is about children being heard. And I think one could interpret your kite project as an effort to give voice to a community—undocumented citizens—whose voice is often unheard. And it seems connected to your childhood too, to being part of a family that was conscious of the political situation and how little voice Puerto Ricans had, in terms of not having any kind of representation in Congress despite technically being part of America. Do you think this is a permissible read?
Luciano: Well, I think it’s more complicated than Puerto Rico having political representation in the U.S., but yes, throughout the work, there is a desire to promote speaking out and speaking up; about invoking and re-reading history simultaneously, like looking at stories that have not been told and asking why.
Schultz (Rail): Which brings us back to your uncle’s houses.
Luciano: Yes, looking critically and deconstructing our history, and thinking also about the critical role young people play. I’ve always been interested in encouraging young people especially, to embrace their voices. It is why the work involves objects that are also about play and childhood and diversion. It is a way to remember our younger selves.
Farzin (Rail): So, is this work some kind of totem for the future?
Luciano: [Laughter.] I hope so. It’s an homage to the spirit of resistance; from the past to the present. It’s reactivating the history and energy of that earlier era in the now, and for me that’s another important part of it. As I mentioned before, the history of the original object has its own kind of resonance.
Rail: It also has a really strong resonance with this particular moment in Puerto Rican politics, with the ongoing debt crisis—the government filing for bankruptcy just last month, following on the hardline austerity bill passed last year—and the referendum on U.S. statehood, which it sounds like a lot of people are boycotting. A work like Run-a-Bout takes up Puerto-Ricanness from so many perspectives. And especially here, in a gallery in Harlem, with the Puerto Rican flag flying against this view of West Harlem, it brings it all home. How would you say identity figures in your practice?
Luciano: The flag has always been an important symbol for us. There was a time in the 50’s when it was against the law to fly the Puerto Rican flag separately from the American flag in Puerto Rico—if you can believe that—because it was considered a subversive action. Here in the gallery, we raised it higher in the window so it could be seen from outside. It’s also a proud symbol of resistance in communities being threatened by gentrification, both here and on the island. The crisis in Puerto Rico is serious. We are 74 billion dollars in debt, over 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, and austerity measures have forced schools, hospitals, and other public services to close at alarming rates. Meanwhile, banks and hedge fund groups are being protected, public resources are being privatized, and poverty rates are increasing dramatically. I am interested in connecting the crisis on the island with our communities in the diaspora, because we’re all being affected by it. So Puerto Rico is the backdrop for this work, but so too is the city, quite literally in this case. That was not planned, it was a fortuitous aspect of the space, but I like it because the bike is an object that is from the street, so being located in front of the cityscape makes total sense. Pimp My Piraugua (2008), the Piragua cart downstairs, will go back to the street and become activated in the neighborhood. The Piragua cart is a public art project. Piraguas are a shaved ice treat. That sculpture was designed to return to the community that inspired it. It activates energy that’s already there in the community. It becomes a familiar reference and for me that’s what I love about it. On the street, it’s readily understood; in an art gallery it needs translation. [Laughter.]
Rail: Is that something that’s always been in your work?
Luciano: To a degree, yes. There are always codes within these works and sometimes you need didactic texts to unpack that for audiences. Others from this neighborhood will come in here and get it right away. I like the idea of prioritizing those who understand those histories and connections. It’s not necessarily an academic art audience that I am most interested in talking to all the time.
Rail: There is almost a literal and metaphorical bilingual quality going on here. I wonder if that’s because you live in East Harlem—you live in that community and intend for your work to speak to that audience. How do you keep that difficult balance?
Luciano: I don’t know. I like moving back and forth between those two spaces; it’s just part of what I do. It makes sense for me here in this space, and I’m grateful it worked out this way. But it becomes more interesting to me when a space like the one we are sitting in right now becomes truly accessible to the community. This exhibition and the initiative behind it is a really great step in that direction. I think they’ve done a beautiful thing here, with the idea of this triennial. That’s smart, that’s a way of grounding this space from the outset, and I hope that that continues.
Rail: It represents an institutional commitment to the bilingual approach.
Luciano: To a multi-lingual approach. I think of a lot of other artists, of friends and peers who are working within a similar vein, which is also a way of disrupting the expectation and performance of the things we create. Even Nari Ward’s work here (Xquisite LiquorsouL, 2009) is an object that is literally repurposed from the community.
Rail: A liquor store sign that looks somehow different.
Luciano: It spells out “soul,” with the flipped letters.
Rail: It comes from the street and speaks to the street, but adds a level of complexity that makes it more interesting.
Luciano: He’s intervening in the history and memory of an object in an attempt to reshape and redefine it. Literally in this case, to redefine its language and energy.
Rail: Language is important to a lot of the works in this show, including yours.
Luciano: The other thing about the Run-a-Bout, that doesn’t get mentioned in the title, is another play with language—that to run about is to frolic or run free, but to run a ‘Bout’ is to be in control of a battle. It’s about having control, which takes us back to the question of self-determination and independence and being in control of our own destiny.
Rail: It’s a cultural battle, to be part of that conversation.
Luciano: Not just to be part of it, but to be in control of it.
Rail: To activate it.
Luciano: Absolutely, and it’s about being able to tell your own story versus other people telling your story.
Rail: And that’s where history comes back: who owns it, who makes it.
Luciano: Yeah, and setting the story straight, even in our own history.
Rail: Very critical time for that.