Artist of the Week

Marcela Torres

December 12, 2017

Will you care if someone hurts me? Or am I just another nameless body? Torres uses the tools/methodologies of social activism and education to create works in various media (including workshops, photographs, conferences, videos, live performances, publications and community programming) that operate as forms of embodied research and protest into contemporary racialized American social structure. SAIC MFA 2017.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. Hello, this is Marcela Torres speaking/writing. I am an artist, educator, floppy body. Art-wise I think people know me most for my performance work, where I am using techniques of martial arts and MMA to fight other bodies as a form of bodily language to investigate racism, gender biases and social assumptions. In general though I see myself as educator where I approach all my projects like lesson plans, and their outcomes vary from performance to zine to audial. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the Mormon religion. It was sort of a mindfuck to be a queer person of color in hyper white patriarchal hierarchy that was all, all, all consuming. I no longer practice Mormonism and although the work isn’t about religion, my background really affected how I think and my want for equality.

What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? Oof. Well the month of November has been a pretty intense one. I worked on a self-defense workshop series at Threewalls Gallery. In-Defense ran the first three weekends of November. I combine healing with defense, so the space is not only a place to learn punches and arm bars, but also a place to be an ally, to be held, to talk through your demons. For this iteration we also found indigenous herbs to burn that completely transformed the space scent wise. The next iteration will be in January. I also had a two person exhibition at SAIC student galleries (Nov 27 – Dec 2). Since my previous fighting based performances, I have begun to think of other types of epherma from physical altercations. In this exhibition, I have made a stage of contact mics where my collaborator Jameson Paige and I perform under it. Our movements create sound that is the documentation of our interactions as we re-create fights from online sources (think World Star hip-hop fight compilation). I’m also getting ready for a show at Acre in Feb, performing in Berlin later that month.

Can you explain the challenges and importance of working as an artist in the current political climate? I think the artist community is really focused on forms of healing for the oppressed, and forms of substantial re-education for privileged parties. There is so much social justice community work that is being celebrated in general, for example Maria Gaspar, but also her 96 Acres project or Theaster Gates and Rebuild Foundation. We need to be uplifting and correct the societal wrongdoing, in a way that allows for anger as well as listening on all sides to provide a balance that doesn’t recreate the same hierarchy of power.

What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? This questions made me lol, I feel like my relationship to materials is ridiculous. I approach each project as a research question, as the narrative begins to develop the materials become clearer, but are never obvious. Each project is an opportunity to learn another skill. As a team of one it makes me seek out the human knowledge and tools I need, that feels similar to being on a scavenger hunt. In the last 6 months I’ve been soldering, using heat presses on silk, I’ve sewn tons of costumes, I’ve curated undergraduates work, I’ve hired personal trainers for me and a collaborator, I’ve made ceramics, etc. In general my process allows for a lot of openness, so I can continue to play and find new materials. It also means I’m not a specialist in anything but instead have a very large DIY toolbox.

What have you learned about yourself and your practice through working collaboratively? Sometimes being an artist is super lonely. You are by yourself locked in a room dreaming up hallucinations. Coming from a family with 5 other siblings and tons of cousins I’m really use to a lot of socialization. I crave the hype of working with other people, in a controlled manner. Every time I collaborate with someone I’m making a commit to them, to our unified goal and a chance to really get to know them. I love to make work because I get to learn new abilities but also I get to fall in love with people over and over again. I feel a lot less lonely now that I have this super strong committed art family. These different aspects to my practice help to make a sustainable lifestyle, with people and constant amusing challenges.

As a performer, you are both the image and image-maker. Can you talk about the role of personal identity within your work? Taking control of my image has been a very pivotal part of understanding myself and in turn my practice. My body used to feel like a mystical illusion, having had a certain amount of dysmorphia caused by being raised in a very white space. Once the performances happen I am left with the documentation. When I apply to things or go to my website they are filled with pictures of ME! I directed these images, I told the photographer what I wanted, I dressed myself, I built the props. In having that control I often choose to look intense and strong. I want to embody perseverance, wisdom and care, so when I don’t feel that way I have this ephemera that reminds me of my worth. Although I do let myself be vulnerable and open with the audience, I let them see me in states of discomfort. Overall I enjoy being able to control when I’m being watched and how, I view my body as an ancient gift that needs to be respected. My dad use to say I was an Aztec warrior princess and I kind of believe it.

What is your favorite thing about living and working in Chicago? I like that it’s affordable to live in Chicago without lacking in culture. The art community is both small and large and feels pretty supportive. There’s the ability to stay and work here but also links to other parts of the world. Overall its pretty comfortable here, which means I can just worry about the art making.

What artists are you interested in right now? I was totally blown away by the recent Sondra Perry lecture at the Gene Siskel a few weeks ago. The way she is able to spin a narrative, add all these seemingly disparate parts that are personal as well about large social, political tension is beautiful. That combined with her materiality is just so uniquely her. I really enjoy when artist seem real, she was like so likable and well read without being inaccessible. HUGE ART CRUSH. One of my mentors is the photographer Dana Hoey, she also uses fight aspects in her work. She had a show in Detroit last spring and she’s doing a lot of interesting community work that combines youth and the local jujitsu community. And of course continually taken by Cassil. The intensity of the work is mind-blowing.

How did your interest in the martial arts begin? Since I was in middle school I had these fantasies of being able to kick peoples asses. Whether they were people I had crushes on or people who were annoying to me. In moments where I didn’t feel like I could defend myself with words these fantasies made me feel strong. When I was 24 I got married (now defunct), started college and became a Crossfit fanatic. Crossfit and weightlifting made me have this newfound relationship with my body. I found that I was hella strong and physically gifted. When I moved to Chicago in 2015 I had decided it was finally time to tap into this fantasy. I had the bodily ability already and I really wanted to be able to truly defend myself. To be able to walk down the street with confidence in myself.

What do you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing/interacting with your work? I want the viewers to walk away with new empathy. That by seeing these acts of vulnerability and violence they are able to open up their emotions and being to truthfully be an ally to others. Begin to take it upon themselves to risk their comfort in order to cause change and equality.

What’s your absolute favorite place in the city/the world to be? I really love being in the desert like Joshua Tree or Moab or with my family eating dinner together just gabbing or the Textile Discount Outlet or Jenny’s Ice Cream with a big sundae. I’m a travel addict so I’m open to continually finding new fun places. Most of all I really adore being in my own bed. I recently got a divorce from my partner of 10 years. I lost my home in Utah and a lot of things that seemed foundational to my life. Now I have my own room and it’s permanent, I don’t have to travel back and forth between states or homes, this place is just mine. During the break up I spent a lot of time looking for the right bed frame, sheets, lamps etc. It felt really cathartic to do that alone without anyone else’s opinion; I was finally taking the time to make a space for myself. I feel very warm, independent and cared for knowing that space exists for me.

What do you do when you’re not working on your art? It feels like everything I do somehow connects back to the art making process. Otherwise I spend some time at the gym either Mission or LA Fitness. I also like to watch TV in the background of cooking or writing emails. I love to dance and party in general, I just need that energy of being with a large group of friends living for the music. I search for music often, trying to find some good house, trance or R&B. Saying I like food is an understatement. I also invite myself over to friend’s houses, I like when we all cook together.