Carlos Motta: We Got Each Other’s Back
Catalogue text for “SOFT POWER” at SFMOMA, 2019
It is a dangerous time to be a migrant living within US borders or arriving at them looking for work or political refuge. This danger is compounded for queer migrants who risk additional harm from multiple directions—the state, fellow travelers, family members and ordinary homophobes. It goes without saying then that to create art as a queer migrant, and to do so with queer migrants as subject matter is bold, courageous, and defiant. These adjectives perfectly characterize artist Carlos Motta’s body of work and perhaps specifically his latest and ongoing documentary project on undocumented queer artists in the United States. In this case, as with all of his work, Motta’s collaborative approach to art proves difficult to simply characterize given the probing questions he poses, the sites he centers, and the points of view he privileges. His works to date have considered subjects such as the value of democracy for marginalized groups, the significance of political art for achieving democratic ends, the role of colonial legacies in defining not just racial, but gender and sexual norms, and the state violence of immigration regimes, particularly for queer people.
In responding to what has been described as an immigration “crisis,” this timely project continues his trajectory by centering the lived experiences of a relatively new political subject: the undocuqueer. Undocuqueers identify as queer or trans and undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Although the term didn’t originate with him, “undocuqueer” often gets attributed to Bay Area undocuqueer artist, Julio Salgado, the charismatic subject of Motta’s installation in the SOFT POWER exhibition at SF MoMA, who in 2010-11 created a series of brightly colored posters with the cartoon likeness of undocuqueer activists from around the United States. Salgado positioned each activist on the poster beneath the phrase “I am Undocuqueer,” and beside an empowering or political statement from the activist. These posters circulated widely at rallies, in radical spaces, and online. Undocuqueers, who are young and multiracial, changed the landscape for US immigration politics, which up to that time had been largely dominated by Latino/a/x organizations and leaders of an older generation with a commitment to traditional (read Catholic) family values and a brand of respectability politics that emphasized immigrants’ hard work, contributions to the economy, and status as law abiding.
As expressed by Salgado in the videos that make the installation and elsewhere, especially in the early days, some undocuqueers shared a commitment to respectability politics. As they developed, their politics took cue from queer/AIDS activists of the late 20th century. Like Queer Nation, undocuqueers insisted: we’re here, we’re undocuqueer, get used to it! Drawing from their experiences coming out of the closet as queer, many elected to come out of the shadows as undocumented. They agitated in the offices of elected officials, ran slick media campaigns, and gained national attention. Their efforts did not result in the passage of the DREAM Act, which would have granted some of them a pathway to citizenship; nor did they result in comprehensive immigration reform. Their efforts did result in Obama’s executive order creating DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which in 2012 gave some of these young people access to a work permit and a brief reprieve from the fear of deportation. Ever since the 2016 election, this program has been under constant threat, putting these now very visible young people in a vulnerable spot.
In featuring voices and images of some key undocuqueer activists like Salgado, Motta’s collaborative project highlights the power of refusing to even attempt to return to the shadows, no matter the risk. His work emphasizes the necessity of an intersectional lens for politics, one that recognizes the complexity of power and identity as the crucial basis for coalition building. Motta asks his audience to consider their own collusion with state practices and violence that have created the conditions in which these young activists survive, and often thrive. Motta uses his art as whip-smart political theory, biting commentary, and sobering looking glass. What makes the work so special though, is how Motta conjoins politics with deeply moving personal narratives. Undocuqueer artists and activists are typically celebrated or maligned based purely on their political actions and academic or professional achievements. Motta makes manifest the people behind the politics: their pain, senses of humor, desires, and quirks. The installation thus provides audiences with a profound window into the lives of what Salgado has called “illegals in times of crisis.”
But a crisis is not just a condition of danger or instability. A crisis may also be a determinative turning point. The first sense of the term seems to be what catalyzed so much of the post-2016-election creation of political art and other “artivist” interventions on a widespread scale perhaps not seen in the United States since the 1960s, prompting New York Magazine editor-at-large Carl Swanson to ask: “Is political art the only art that matters now?” The 2016 election also catalyzed Carlos Motta’s project on undocuqueer “artivists” in the United States, but Motta’s work points audiences toward the second sense of the term crisis. As always, his rich, nuanced, historically grounded art, interrogates the political and cultural moment, offering new and refreshing lenses with which to see and understand. In this work, he refuses to dwell on the danger and the instability of the crisis. With his collaborators, he provides intellectual and creative resources, pathways, and templates with which to respond and intervene.