Ángel Lartigue: Romances Científicos
Ángel Lartigue is an artist born and raised in Houston TX. Lartigue dropped out of high school as a teenager and has since pursued in solitary research. Designer of 2017 label book, "La ciencia avanza pero yo no" is part of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Hirsch Library rare books collection. Lartigue’s primary motivation is to investigate and redefine the relationship between the body and land through the use of organic matter as raw material. This concentration has recently led the artist to pursue a variety of independent studies including forensic anthropology and human remains recovery. As a result, Lartigue has experimented with the processes of decomposition into artworks incorporating fungi, insects, and even odors captured during fieldwork and from various burial sites of South Texas. Lartigue was recently invited to take part in the 2019 artistic-laboratory residency, SymbioticA (University of Western Australia, Perth, AU) to forward this research and artistic exploration.
BEF: Hey Ángel! This is a really special interview for me because we actually know each other from High School and it’s just so awesome to share this platform with you. Thanks for meeting up with me!
ÁL: Yeah of course, this will be the first time I talk about this specific work, so thank you!
BEF: There are very clear rules and guidelines in your books about the Sub-Scientist Booth. Is the Sub-Scientist Booth meant to be replicated by other “Sub-Scientists”? Do you see it as a manifesto?
ÁL: I am into manifestos; I’m very intimidated to do a manifesto because manifestos are usually written in a very academic way, and when they are, they’re usually very boring. So yeah it’s more of a designed manual where I include the processes and everything. There are diagrams and there’s a lot of information on how to execute this thing. Originally I wanted someone else to do Sub Scientist Booth, I just couldn’t find anyone willing to be constrained by a chain collar while handling stranger’s spit and blood, so I decided to do it. A lot of my work can be replicated by anyone, if they choose to use it, and if there’s a need. I always see it as a symbiotic exchange.
BEF: Muertx is perhaps some of your most photo-specific work that threads with the rest of the “La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No” (LCAPYN). Would you say this is the beginning of the rebirth of the scientist?
ÁL: Muertx and the other works all started around the same time. The title La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No (Science Advances But I Do Not), was something I took from this Spanish pop punk song from the 80’s and it rang a bell when I heard it and I said “Oh, this is going to be the umbrella title of these works” which eventually became this collection of books. I think I was going through a lot of types of influences, what is defined as a body and its relationship with the land while questioning the roles of science and technology. I find it hard to talk about this work because there’s a lot of different aspects and layers to it; it’s trying to ask big picture questions, but it was also when I first started to integrate biotechnology. I wasn’t interested in making themes of science fiction, even though a lot of speculative biology and literature was a huge influence with this work, but rather, actually tampering with the materials of these methods. I was trying to make work that wasn’t just about imagery but literally used biological processes as ready-mades and what it means to bring these methods into different contexts, like doing the Sub Scientist Booth at a queer nightclub party and using household items to do public DNA extractions.
I want to make a foundation, start a new language. That’s why you probably say that it looks like a manifesto even though I’m not literally saying or writing number 1 this and number 2 that, etc. It pulls away from the written standard of a manifesto and it starts incorporating images and all these different things. And that’s why it looks like a manual for a new language, that’s kinda how I treated this work. The beautiful thing about language is that you really don’t need much to create one and I really like that, it’s a good a way to explain LCAPYN. It’s about laying down foundational blocks for what was to come.
BEF: You used a camera phone to shoot Muertx and I noticed that is something seen throughout your work – using DIY materials to create and execute your vision. Can you talk about how you source your materials?
ÁL: Yeah, it’s very raw. Originally, the person photographed in the Muertx series was meant to be someone else but no one was up for being naked outside while lying on unsanitary grounds, so I just decided to do it. They’re all done through my camera phone in secluded areas around the North Side (of Houston), like around Moody Park, just around the neighborhood. I didn’t want to bring a lot of attention as well, because a lot of them are in abandoned spaces. The primary idea was to create a scene where one is seen looking at their own dead body. I began to look at the body and earth as prime tech materials, because they are the most immediate stuff we have available to use. The Muertx photographs were always integrated with these homemade altars I was doing at friend’s homes, constructed primarily with found clay and mud... At this point I didn’t have that vocabulary to really think “this is about the land, this about the body” nor I planned to show this work in art spaces because this was before I started doing stuff in galleries, it was really meant to just be posted online like on Tumblr and Instagram.
BEF: When looking at the Muertx photos the violent and untimely deaths of QTPOC bodies comes to mind. Was that something you were thinking about when creating these photographs?
ÁL: I was mostly focusing on my surroundings and the neighborhood I grew up in, especially when I would go out and photograph in these very decayed spaces. That in itself made me hyper aware of my surroundings while taking these photographs, because I would go alone to do this. I wouldn’t say I was deliberately thinking I wanted to make specific work about those issues, I think it comes out because of the type of spaces I’m doing it in, like on the railroad tracks, behind a bar alley, and in city sewages... but after sometime I began to use areas like the sea and the cotton fields of South Texas. I was interested in integrating the surrounding terrain as an important aspect of it, so they’re like portraits but also landscapes. They were inspired by a contemporary term, Solastalgia, which is this existential and psychological distress you experience due to drastic environmental change. Muertx speaks a lot on that, placing the bare human body out within the external environment. This eventually led me to experiment more on works dealing with decomposition and my recent fieldwork studies in human remains recovery, which has a lot do with the biological body in direct contact with the land.
I wanted to see an image of myself in the lowest point that people often associate with death and decay, which is what the general public often sees with QTPOC. I wanted to create that image for myself before the public did, to take that visual power back from the world. I never really talk about this work, Muertx, because they’re the most visually packaged in that way. Other works like Sub Scientist Booth are more complex in their process and the medium of photography has become more inadequate to capture that work. The Sub Scientist work deals with the body in a very different way; it’s more of a ritual rather than a framed image. It’s an exchange of blood and extracted DNA from saliva where a scientist becomes submissive to the public, often restrained, masked and anonymous. The ritual takes less than 5 minutes to execute all while the public observes. In the end, the public takes a vial piece of the scientist containing DNA substance extracted from their own spit or blood in exchange for their own. I wanted to do a piece where we only had our bodies to use, almost like a currency. I began experimenting first with my friends and family, and eventually in different venues throughout Texas. The context plays an important role with this piece, giving it different meanings and forms depending on the environment, similar to how Muertx deals with the environment. I use Muertx as a way to grab people, kinda like windows to the rest of this work.
BEF: You mentioned how you were thinking about science as a colonial value structure, and that you’re writing a new language, the death and rebirth of the scientist as a theme in you work. Do you see this work as pushing back against the “white-hetero-patriarchal” narrative that is fed to us about the sciences – i.e. eugenics?
ÁL: For me, something that I tried to say especially in LCAPYN is the notion of deconstructing all aspects of the scientist; from the fashion of performing DNA extractions in a jockstrap to what a friend describes, “science at the club.” It’s really strange when you talk about science and the binary because that word has many different definitions within scientific disciplines. How I’ve approached it is from a non-binary-trans perspective, or at least I tried to. I never saw this work as a bridge of science and art. Yes, some of the bio-art movements of the 90s have influenced me, but I think that whole idea of bridging those two things is very binary and it doesn’t get to the point of what I’m trying to do. So I kinda try to leave that alone, it’s really me attempting to create a language for myself, with enough fluidity so I can understand these things. This colonial regime has been here for centuries and it has displaced itself in different political forms of control, from theology to science, from slavery to industrial complexes. These forces that produce “truths” have already been at play way before we came into our own self-awareness. It’s my way of asking, how can I handle these things as an individual, and what is my role within these shifting frameworks? Are there ways I can detach myself? Are there ways I can play and change these codes? And that’s how I’m treating this work. It’s not very theoretical or academic because these ideas have now been filtered through visual images in so many ways. But it’s also not directly about LGBTQ rights, it’s trying to ask simple questions: what is that? How do we even begin to define the nature of our bodies when the language we use for these categories is already skewed?
I was over the roles of both artists and scientists, the idea that established technologies and theories like “time and space” eventually get trickled down as artistic mediums and concepts within the institutions. That marginalized groups become artists only to be creators of metaphoric narratives and sprinkle our stories of identity onto these sciences, only to “diversify” these institutions. I was like why can’t I do both? Why can’t I also be the one to establish the medium, the science, at the same time constructing new ways of seeing how art can be, to break out of those patterns?
The Sub Scientist piece was a way for me to figure out how to handle that technology, specifically biotechnology. When I did the Sub Scientist piece through extraction of saliva DNA and blood with the public, it was the idea of how can I create a ritual where I’m able to change my body? When I do this exchange, am I changing my body, are we changing our bodies to do this? I wanted to participate using this method without going through the usual medical trajectory imposed onto us, in my case, the more rigorous procedures involving hormones and gender reassignment surgery. I am trying to use technology in such a way that I can get a hold of it, own it, and possibly reclaim my body outside of those established frameworks where marginalized bodies are often seen medicalized, while at the same time revealing more about the binary values that are set in place. This allowed me to not only change my own life and body, but in effect, also change other people’s bodies. That’s what I was thinking when making the Sub Scientist piece, a submissive scientist, and a subverted body. For me the Sub Scientist piece is very trans, and maybe a lot of people don’t see it that way.
BEF: Now that you mention it, your interest in collecting DNA, and changing it in ways where you redefine what a body or living organism is make more sense.
ÁL: Yeah, and that brought in the idea of how science not just categorizes biological sex onto bodies, but how it is now used as a base for explaining heritage and ancestry. Sub Scientist Booth was about showing and giving the public the actual raw substance of it by exchanging it with me. It was more about trust but also about not labeling this substance because it will always be there, it will always exist, what changes is the language we use to define it.
The DNA substances that I collected from the Sub Scientist Booth were later integrated into ceramic abacuses, these were my first objects I’ve imbued with human substances. The ceramic abacuses resemble tzompantli structures, as a form to explore public display of human imbued edifices without labeling any of the centrifuge tubes. The abacuses become living objects; I’ve extracted DNA from over 100 different people that also means 100 people have a vial piece containing my DNA substance out there in the world. I like to think that these substances are no longer considered as “DNA”, because they leave their usual “biological purpose”, they become something like xeno-substances, other worldly living things.
BEF: Spirituality and science cross paths throughout your work. References to La Santa Muerte is alluded throughout with visual manifestations. Why did you see that as necessary to include in the LCAPYN?
ÁL: I used the image of la Santa Muerte throughout the work as a primary image because I was thinking so much about the death of science, the death of the scientist, but in a romantic kinda way. I wanted to use an image that really speaks a lot of that. I was using a lot of images of mythology like angels and chimeras throughout the work and la Santa Muerte image was perfect for it. I decided to redesign the scientific method using those images. You know those fill-in worksheets you get introduced as a child with the basic steps on how to execute it: QUESTION, OBESERVATION, EXPERIMENT, and RESULT. It is now a free worksheet anyone can download via online translated in various languages; I wanted to see how far I could take la Santa Muerte. I was inspired by the hidden botanicas around the North Side (of Houston) where the image is heavily used in many ways. Even though not a lot of people talk about it, I’ve seen these images even growing up. That happens a lot with the images I’ve used, they bubble up and pop up in there without me just really thinking about it too much. Let’s put it in there and see what happens. And I really treated the graphic image of la Santa Muerte as the branding of LCAPYN. Refashioning it as a book, I eventually brought it to one of the main altars of la Santa Muerte in the barrio of Tepito (Mexico City). I left the book of LCAPYN there as an offering, returning it back to the holy space, and it is a holy space. Almost like a pilgrimage, where thousands of people travel to the altar every month, and people leave a lot of crazy shit there. I wanted to leave this, as an exchange for the way I used the image, the way it was packaged, with the binding and the blood vile, a remnant that came out of the Sub Scientist Booth. And bringing human blood, there are no labels as where the substance is coming from - I don’t know whose substance this is. So, again the idea of redefining body through offering and ritual.
BEF: To me what comes to mind when you explain that is the idea that we’re all spirits in sacks of flesh, and that spirit will take on new physical forms but the spirit will always be there.
ÁL: That’s interesting because the little visual that I did for the saliva exchange looks like a soul, or extraction of the soul. (refer image) I was like, “how can I extract this thing that people often think of as an essence”, so I hopped on YouTube and watched a lot of homemade videos on how to do the DNA extraction. You actually don’t need high technology to do this. The main ingredients are salt, water, soap and rubbing alcohol – the remedy is very DIY. When you’re talking about science and technology you’re always talking about industry and capitalism in some form or another, there’s no avoiding it. That’s why LCAPYN was such a perfect title, because here I am, without an art or science degree engaging with these technologies...
BEF: You have a super exciting research residency in Perth, Australia as part of SymbioticA. Tell us about that.
ÁL: I’ve been recently accepted to take part in the residency SymbioticA, located at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The residency was established in 2000 by two bio-artists, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, as a transdisciplinary research laboratory. The whole idea of SymbioticA is to allow not just artists but also, scholars, philosophers and other scientists the space to experiment and critically engage with the life sciences and resources the university offers. I decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to help with my living and travel expenses during my stay in Perth. This campaign has not only opened up more public questions about the work but I’ve taken the opportunity to package it in a way it can communicatively reach a broader audience, through social media, video and gift packages. For example, some donation gifts include zines, a complete printed copy of my research notes done at SymbioticA, and a sealed piece containing degraded fungi cultivated from my recent fieldwork studies in outdoor human remains recovery. The work keeps me on my feet by asking questions about how we use the land and body for the advancement of knowledge that’s always tied to some sort of monetary exchange, and ownership, even if its indirectly, we are already doing it in so many ways. My work always goes back to the uses of the body and land and this residency is a stepping-stone to further explore those topics.