It's a blustery weekday afternoon and Jorge Rojas is knee-deep in construction materials for the low-tech enclosure he's building inside the Diaspora Vibe Gallery in the Design District. The 40-year-old Mexican artist is creating a 14-by-14-by-8-foot wood and cardboard cultural echo chamber that for seven days will be his home and studio.
It's part of an interactive performance series he began last year in Guadalajara. Since then, Rojas has re-created the ambitious community-rooted series of works he calls Live Gestures in New York City, Chicago, and now the Big Orange.
For his installation My space: Miami, Rojas plans to live, work, sleep, and eat in the boxy structure while engaging the public at the gallery during regular hours and online through a 24/7 live video broadcast on blogtv.com/people/myspace.
Rojas is in town for a residency program sponsored by the Visual Arts Network and the National Performance Network, among others. At Diaspora, he is joined by Nigerian-born Wura Ogunji, who along with locals Alexis Caputo, Marcia Anderson, Nerissa Street, S. Laraia Dean, and Yolande Clark-Jackson has been working the past two weeks on a project titled Soundings. It's a "public performance piece through which black women develop and choreograph movements based on deep knowledge and body memory," the 39-year-old Ogunji explains.
"What [Ogunji and Rojas ] bring here to Miami is a fresh, new energy that pushes the boundaries of the everyday art scene," says Rosie Gordon-Wallace, Diaspora's director and curator. "Both artists work in media that challenge artistic ideas."
Inside the gallery, Rojas has furnished the interior of his makeshift dwelling with a bed, desk, computer, lamp, and fan to make himself comfy. He leaves the structure only for breaks to the bathroom a few feet away. He has been trading small-format drawings, paintings, and collages for food from gallery visitors. Rojas says his works typically range in price from $500 to $10,000. "I wanted to integrate the exchange of food for art as part of the project," he says. "It's an effort to demystify the exclusive nature of the art industry. Also, people still have this notion that an artist has to struggle or starve to be successful. To me, it's not about being an art star, but having a roof over my head and doing what I love to do. This way, people who come to the gallery can participate with me spontaneously... while becoming part of the project."
For Rojas, My space: Miami offers a commentary on social-networking websites that are changing the way we communicate. "Technology is advancing so rapidly we face a challenge in understanding how sites like Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace are impacting us culturally, sociologically, and anthropologically," he says.
"It's changing how we interact with each other. To me, it's fascinating how technology like cell phones and texting, BlackBerries, and these Internet sites are designed to bring us closer together but the paradox is that while becoming more connected, we end up becoming more isolated," he observes.
Rojas, who says he is a fan of social-networking sites and recently reconnected with a grade school friend online, says he also explores themes of social voyeurism and boundaries of privacy — and their relationship to art and technology.
At the gallery, he has created a series of peepholes and viewing slits on the surfaces of his cardboard digs so people can watch his actions and exchange notes through the apertures. "I felt that switching from a virtual space to a physical space, where people could communicate with me face-to-face through these openings I call 'chat holes,' was an old-fashioned way to comment on how we communicated in the past, rather than current forms such as instant messaging or texting."
He says that during his confinement, he prefers notes slipped through the wall instead of email. "People hardly write letters anymore. It's becoming a dying art," Rojas says. "Even libraries and newspapers and publications might become a thing of the past. I am trying to deconstruct how these emerging systems of communication are changing how we interact and our evolving views of the world from a psychological and sociological perspective. For me, as an artist, that's very important."
He also has invited the community to bring postcards, photographs, posters, and record jackets, which he will hang as part of the installation. "I am concealing some of the notes and items the public have given me in envelopes sealed with wax as a commentary on the protection of privacy," Rojas adds.
As for relying on the kindness of strangers for grub, Rojas says he's not asking for charity. "I'm just saying, 'Will work for food,' and in doing so I'm demystifying the process of exhibiting, selling, or buying art."
In Diaspora's Project Room, Wura Ogunji has hung a sprawling 9-by-17-foot blue and white painting titled Jump as a backdrop for her performance piece. In Soundings, Ogunji worked with five local women, employing a video camera as a silent participant in an unfolding ritual. The work was designed to explore connections to body, land, and power. She gave each woman a bundle of multicolored cords she measures in fathoms — a six-foot length used to measure the depth of water — as an Ariadne's thread, marking space and linking the women's bodies. As the performers stood in a circle, Ogunji asked each woman to describe the color of her deepest power.
For the artist, these actions signify spaces of infinite possibility, at once the crossroads, the altar, and the divining tray. "For me, the ocean reference is vital, as it represents our deepest memories," Ogunji says. "The ocean is both a carrier of memory and a place of amnesia. For those ancestors that crossed the Atlantic, it represented a place of incredible power. My hope is that we can access it as a metaphor for our lost memories and a witness to our past."
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