Noah Simblist: Igniting The Archive

Igniting The Archive

By Noah Simblist

Art in America, 2017

The projects of Mexico City–based Minerva Cuevas look at the ways in which seemingly banal items like fruit, chocolate, or water can be laden with ideologies associated with global capitalism. Her conceptual gestures employ a wide range of forms, such as rebranding campaigns that subvert a corporation’s logo to reveal power dynamics and histories of colonialism, and artist-run organizations that emulate various real-world entities.

Cuevas has regularly exhibited in Europe and Mexico for some twenty years, but aside from a handful of group shows over the last decade, her work has not been seen much in the US. However, this fall, US audiences have an opportunity to look more closely at her practice. She is participating in the two-year, research-based initiative “Public Knowledge,” organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Public Library, which launched this past April. She was invited to create a mural at the Dallas Museum of Art, which will be on view from September 2, 2017 to February 11, 2018, and is included in Prospect.4 in New Orleans, which runs Nov. 18, 2017-February 5, 2018. She also has a two-week residency this September at the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco that will lead to a show there in 2018.

Her multipart “Del Montte Campaign” (2003-) responds to the corporate exploitation of natural resources in Central and South America. In exhibitions, the project has consisted of sculptural elements (grocery–store–like stacks of canned tomatoes with labels that read pure murder) and billboard-advertisement-style murals. She alters the name of Del Monte Foods to “Del Montte,” a nod to José Efraín Ríos Montt, the president of Guatemala from 1982 to ‘83 who used his military to attack the Ixil people, an indigenous Maya ethnic group. Montt was staunchly anti-communist and, as a result, received support from the US, which shipped millions of dollars of military equipment to fuel a conflict that the UN has called genocide. One distinct strategy that he used to control the Guatemalan rural population was the social program Frijoles y Fusiles (Beans and Rifles). Those villages that the military deemed to be allied with the government received food while resisters were massacred. When we consider Guatemala’s history as a banana republic and US interventions into Guatemalan politics on behalf of the United Fruit Company in the 1950s, Cuevas’s “Del Montte Campaign” highlights the geopolitical intersections of food, state actors, and corporations as well as the racist violence perpetrated against indigenous communities for both profit and political power.

Cuevas established the Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation) in 1998 in Mexico City as a kind of an umbrella organization for projects like the Del Montte campaign. Initially renting an office on the fourteenth floor of the Latin American Tower, a modernist architectural icon that is also the tallest skyscraper in the city, Cuevas offered free services, such as sweeping up debris in public spaces, and products, like subway tickets and barcode stickers to reduce the prices on goods from grocery stores. She drew her first clientele from the people that came in and out of the building to conduct business. Art world iterations of the Mejor Video Corp. have appeared at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, Z33 in Belgium, and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. In those contexts, the participants were museum visitors and the corporation appeared as a performative installation. In the case of the Museo Tamayo, Cuevas requested that the museum allow free admission. They refused, but one of the Mejor Vida Corp.’s services is to print student ID cards, allowing visitors to get free entry to the museum thereafter. Another campaign listed on the organization’s website critiques Mexico’s national lottery for serving private interests. In posters and murals, Cuevas disrupts the red heart of the lottery logo with bloodlike drips and the text en méxico 46,000,000 de personas viven en pobreza (In Mexico 46,000,000 people live in poverty).

Does the Mejor Vida Corp. intervene in every day life or is it a conceptual gesture that has no practical application? Cuevas has frequently insisted that it is not ideologically motivated activism. For one reason, she intends the website to emulate for-profit businesses. It also has a very limited capacity, and it does not advocate for a particular set of ideals. Artist Tania Bruguera, however, includes the project on her online archive Arte Ütil (Useful Art) because of its practical effects for the user. At the same time the Mejor Vida Corp. functions like Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, in that it exists through the labor of one person but implies a collective effort, turning the organization into a representation of collectivity.

Particular qualities of collectivism and collaboration change from one artist-run organization to another, but these entities are in many ways predicated on resisting the traditional relationships of the artist as an active creator and the viewer as a passive consumer. For the work to exist there must be some sort of social interaction between at least two people. In Cuevas’s case the collaboration starts with the participant asking for a student ID card and continues through its every use.

Unlike the Mejor Vida Corp., Cuevas’s International Understanding Foundation (IUF) is structured like a foundation, mandated to serve the public good, with a mission statement and a board of trustees. It began in 2016 as her contribution to a group exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and featured an architectural space resembling a three-dimensional Mondrian grid painting arrayed with various objects. Interested in the traces of historical social movements in contemporary forms of protest, she displayed archival photographs of a 1980s punk-band performance in which the backdrop was a 1920s social-protest graphic depicting workers in blocky black and white shapes along with the text tag der freiheit (Day of Freedom). She also paired one of Warhol’s disaster paintings based on a 1962 cover for the New York Mirror, declaring 130 die in jet!, with the original newspaper clipping, underscoring how artwork can traverse the border between the real and the symbolic. Cuevas also included a rock she was given by Jimmie Durham as a gift and a Mickey Mouse figurine holding a white piece of paper with a quote by Bertolt Brecht: “What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?” She collaborated with a composer in Cologne to write an IUF hymn, which was performed by a choir made up of administrators at the Museum Ludwig. Together, the installation wove a tapestry of social and political narratives that moved in and out of popular and more rarified forms of culture.

The IUF can fit into different contexts, and Cuevas plans to restage it for her exhibition with the Kadist Foundation in 2018. This show will also draw on her research for “Public Knowledge.” Organized by SFMOMA’s Deena Chalabi, Dominic Willsdon, and Stella Lochman, “Public Knowledge” addresses the recent shifts in the Bay Area resulting from the technology industry boom and how those changes affect cultural memory. The boom has led to rising socioeconomic inequality, pushing families from their traditional communities and pricing out cultural spaces.

For “Public Knowledge,” Cuevas was tasked with a residency at the San Francisco Public Library. Her work there is both an investigation into an archive and an engagement with the civic structure that maintains the archive. The primary theme of her research is fire, which is a paradoxical element given its threats and benefits. She considers it a metaphor for revolution, flames being one visible manifestation of social protest. But fire poses a threat to libraries, notoriously destroying the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt in several blazes between the 1st century BCE and the 7th century CE. On the other hand, the technology to start and control fire contributed to the natural and cultural evolution of the earliest human communities. Cuevas is also interested in the idea that fire, like information, spreads, and the spread of information is what underlies San Francisco’s technology boom. In this sense, there is an inverse relationship between the destructive characteristics of fires in the Bay Area—the 1851 fire that destroyed almost a quarter of the city or, more recently, the 2016 fire of the Ghost Ship in Oakland—and the ways that technology has metaphorically ignited economic development.

Cuevas is interested in how images are used by various social forces, leveraged and activated to achieve their goals. For instance, the “Del Montte” project riffs on the way that advertising uses imagery to communicate with a consumer. But activism, the dissemination of countercultural resistance, also depends on images, which are put forth in rallies, marches, mass mailings, and the media. Cuevas knows this well since she has been documenting these forms of activism with her long-term project Dicidencia (2008-), a video archive of protests in Mexico City. Protests often rely on performativity and visuality and thus are forms of representation. In this sense, Cuevas both reveals and implements the political power of images.