A Starting Point

“There is no better way of doing things. There are no formulas. However, you must understand who you are and what values you bring.”

Patricia Vázquez Gómez

There are many moments in life that are a first time, and there are many ways to do something for the first time. How to start?

As a new student in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University and a recent transplant from San Jose, Costa Rica, this is a moment of many firsts for me: my first time writing for the SoFA Journal and my first time sharing ideas and contemporary artistic experiences with other artists in the United States.

“A starting point” is the common thread of this interview with artist, program alum, and current faculty member, Patricia Vázquez Gómez. What is the beginning of something? How do you take the first step? How do our ideas about something manage to change over time? How do you initiate the social practice of your art, and more importantly, at the beginning of an artistic journey, how can we use art in an ethical way, according to the realities of the communities we work with? 

For this interview, I exchanged thoughts and ideas with Patricia, who lives and works between the ancient Tenochtitlán and the unceded and occupied lands of the Chinook, Clackamas, Multnomah and other Indigenous peoples. Her art practice investigates the social functions of art, the intersections between aesthetics, ethics, and politics, and the expansion of community based art practices.

An artistic exercise.

Let us begin!

Manfred Parrales: Let’s talk about the beginning. How did you get to the PSU Art and Social Practice Program?

Patricia Vázquez Gómez: After working as an educator in the immigrant rights movement, I wanted to dedicate myself more to art. Initiated in painting, printmaking, murals, videos, I wanted to return to my artistic practice and I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to explore the idea of an MFA and came across several programs in art practice and social practice in the United States. I evaluated San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, and although I had an idea of going to San Francisco at the beginning, I ended up opting for Portland State because of the economic facilities that it presented at that time.

Manfred: In your artistic practice you have talked about ethics. In one of your works you ask, can we use art as a way to rethink and develop our ethical commitment to the people around us?

If someone wants to begin their journey in the world of art, in general, and the social practice of art, specifically, what role does ethics play in our artistic practices? And why is it important to keep it in mind from the start? 

Patricia: When I entered the program I had no idea about social practice. The use of the term “social” creates confusion and is something that I don’t like to use anymore. I do not identify myself as such. People believe that you are an activist, that you do projects that want to change a reality or a context. I personally do not have that capacity or intention. I see my practice as a research process. I investigate a situation, context, dynamic, or topic, and what interests me is generating knowledge of that situation. That knowledge has an activist bias due to my background, but my intention is never to change things. As an artist working alone with groups of people, I don’t have the capacity, and ethically who am I to come in and change something? I can make suggestions, but my role is not to practice a leadership that is not mine. And that is an ethical issue.

My focus on ethics issues is related to my history as an organizer and educator with workers and immigrants.

All disciplines have ethical codes that are sometimes explicit or not, sometimes articulated or not, regarding the type of relationships you establish with the people you work with. There is a clear relationship of people in activism in which I, as an organizer, work with a group of people whom a social movement identifies in some way and based on that identification, a series of relationships are created that can and cannot be done. This caused problems when implementing unspoken ethical codes in which I did not feel free to establish meaningful relationships. They allowed me to explore my relationship and interests with people. As an artist I explore that. Our ethical approach to people must be site-specific; if we want to establish relationships of respect we must respond to the situation in which we are operating and have an openness and observation capacity that allows us to understand what kind of values work in a specific context.

In the West, we talk about values in an abstract way. What does respect, honesty, justice mean? What does that mean? What is that in a specific context? What does it mean to establish fair relationships? That happens as you do the work and meet the people. It is a process of personal exploration.

I see my artistic practice as a research process of who I am as a person with ethical interests in my actions. It is important and necessary for artists who are beginning in social practice to make an intentional evaluation of what values you are going to implement in your projects. There is no better way of doing things. There are no formulas. However, you must understand who you are and what values you bring.

In the context of the United States, we cannot afford not to value who we are based on identity. I am an immigrant, and a woman of color, but as I approach a community of undocumented immigrants, there are privileges that I have: education, speaking English, access to certain resources, navigating US systems with some fluency. What responsibilities does that imply? What opportunity is there with that? It is something that must be discussed and understood if you want to work in a social practice.

These topics should be discussed in school. It is difficult to talk about these issues in an educational context because there is not always training on this.

Manfred: Let’s talk about confusion that could appear when talking about social practice as referring to social justice. What is important to consider?

Patricia: Social practice and social justice are not the same, nor do they always go together. Art as an expansive discipline has broad goals. In some contexts in Latin America there is no separation as such. It is art as it is. The definition of terms is somewhat irrelevant. My artistic research is close to my values and committed to issues of social justice, but my practice does not respond to that. Not all artists should do things that respond to these themes. 

Manfred: Let’s talk about the art-education relationship in an art and social practice context. 

Patricia: There are intersections between art and education. It is not imperative to always consider the educational issue, but there are many coincidences between art as a tool to generate knowledge, expand awareness, and develop critical thinking and education. There are similar goals. There are opportunities to explore it but it is not imperative. It strikes me because of my background, it has been a tool but it has not always been present. The conversation should revolve around the topic of artistic research.

I study topics, dynamics, and the artistic work that I create responds to that research. Depending on the situation, this will be the artistic response. Sometimes it can be a mural, sometimes something similar to social practice, sometimes an installation. There is not always a defined intention. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. The process takes you to form. That is my understanding of making art. We must be open to different ways we cannot impose.

Manfred: What are the challenges someone who is engaged in the social practice of art should be aware of?

Patricia: I came from a practice based on artistic objects.

Being in the PSU Art and Social Practice Program forced me to see art as something else. To think otherwise. If that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Part of the educational process also involves unlearning in order to act more freely in what we do. It is a natural and necessary process. What is useful to me here and what is not?

The challenges can be many. How do you keep the practice once you finish school to continue producing and generating income? There are some that we follow and others that leave it. How to keep producing? It is possible but not always easy. Resource access and visibility is a constant challenge, but it is possible.

Manfred: Is there a rule or custom in the program that you are glad you broke, or that you wish you had broken?

Patricia: In the program, there is sometimes a shyness to disagree. When I was in the program, there were strong personalities that I had intense conversations with but it was very productive. You don’t always have to agree. You have to be open to express what you think.

Manfred: In retrospect, how do you see the changes in the ideas and concerns that you had from your early years until now? What has been a learning experience that you have had up to this point in your research/artistic career?

Patricia: As part of the process at the beginning I had experiments that were not always successful, but it is part of learning. It is one thing to learn in the context of the program and another outside of it. It is inevitable to make mistakes. Being an artist makes me less anxious now than before. It is a security issue. I am confident in what I can do and my abilities.

Every project I do is an opportunity to learn and incorporate that learning into what follows. Learning does not end, it is constant, continuous and permanent, and that is how it should be. I have a better understanding of my intentions, motivations, and methods. That reflects and changes all the time. My relationship with the term “social practice” has changed. I see myself as an artist and that’s what I am. Understand what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Manfred Parrales (he/him) is a Latin art communicator from San Jose, Costa Rica and a first year student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. Called Manfred Punky by friends, he believes in communicating through art. After graduating from the Art School of the University of Costa Rica, his interest as a designer and art enthusiast is in creating art communications, solutions, and experiences focused on human connection. He has  7+ years of experience in design and visual communication in the technology industry with a focus on art education, video, design, and photography.

Patricia Vázquez Gómez (she/her) lives and works between the ancient Tenochtitlán and the unceded and occupied lands of the Chinook, Clackamas, Multnomah and other Indigenous peoples. Her art practice investigates the social functions of art, the intersections between aesthetics, ethics and politics and the expansion of community based art practices. She uses a variety of media to carry out her research: painting, printmaking, video, exhibitions, music and multidisciplinary projects. The purposes and methodologies of her work are deeply informed by her experiences working in the immigrant rights and other social justice movements. Her work has been shown at the Portland Art Museum, the Reece Museum, the Paragon Gallery, and the Houston Art League, but also in other spaces such as apartment complexes, community based organizations and schools. She is the recipient of the 2013 Arlene Schnitzer Visual Arts Prize and has received support from the Ford Foundation, Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), the Oregon Community Foundation and Oregon Humanities. Patricia teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Portland State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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