José MarÃa came to New York to do a residency at the J & J Distribution Company in Long Island City. The following interview was conducted last Friday, after his residency concluded.
Guy Forget: How did you get a residency at J & J?
José MarÃa: It was luck. I was their first artist-in-residence, and I'm pretty sure I'll be the last. As you know, I met Dale Krasdale [owner of J & J] in JuÃ¡rez, where he was visiting–part of some missionary thing he was doing at the time. I was working at a maquila in JuÃ¡rez and living in Anapra.
GF: If you could, explain what Dale was doing down there.
JM: To be honest, I have no idea. When I met him, Anapra wasn't a very good place for a guy like him, and now of course it's even worse. But he knew people. Our factory was making cardboard packaging for a bunch of American companies, and his was just one of them. I'm not sure why he decided to visit. He's just a curious guy, I guess.
GF: What were you doing at the packaging plant?
JM: I was a foreman. I made sure everyone did their jobs.
GF: Were you making art at the time?
JM: I've always made art. My day-job was pretty grueling–mostly ten or twelve hour days, maybe one day a week off. But I only did it for a year. It was an important learning experience. But the whole time I was making art. I had my place in Anapra, which was also my studio. None of the art I was making took up any room, so it didn't matter.
GF: What kind of work were you making?
JM: The same as now, only I didn't document anything back then.
GF: Give me an example.
JM: One of my favorite pieces was the dog piece. In Anapra there are a lot of stray dogs, the kind where the females have had so many litters that their stomachs and nipples almost drag across the dirt as they walk around. These were all “mutts,” as you call them, so I thought it would be interesting to bring in a pure-bred dog and let her roam free in town and see how people react. So I went to JuÃ¡rez and bought a ChihuahueÃ±o and let her loose, but someone must have stolen her.
JM: I never saw her again after that first day. Then I got another one in El Paso, a long-haired one, and smuggled him in. People were mystified seeing this little guy–so clean and out of place. He had a refinement that was obvious. Initially he had trouble socializing with the other dogs. People started calling him El PequeÃ±o Diablo. They thought he was either a gift from God, a curse of the Devil, or some sort of message being sent by [the most prominent drug-dealer at the time]. No one ever found out where he came from. El PequeÃ±o was still roaming the town when I moved to El Paso. He was kind of a mascot.
GF: What makes you like this piece?
JM: It's basically invisible. What I did–bring a dog to town–just added one more dog. There has to be over 500 dogs in Anapra. Probably more. So in terms of things added, it's basically nothing. But everyone–kids, adults, criminals, nuns–they all loved seeing a little Chihuahua running around. So it had an impact, but nothing tangible. It's also an intervention–if you want to call it that–that I had no control over. Once I introduced the dog to the environment, it was out of my hands completely.
GF: After you met Dale, what happened?
JM: We went out a few times in JuÃ¡rez. Mostly we went to Café Dali, where there used to be a lot of kids from El Paso that partied there. Drank a lot of mezcal. Dale told me to keep in touch, and in September–after like ten years–he contacted me out of nowhere to see if I wanted to be an artist-in-residence at one of his distribution centers and I said yes.
GF: I know your residency just ended. What did you think? It was only a week, right?
JM: It's my first time in New York, so that's really cool. It's a great city. The first day Dale took me around the warehouse and introduced me to everyone. After that I was basically on my own. No one that works there–it's all men and one woman, the receptionist–but no one that works there knows about art or cares about art outside of television and movies. So they were skeptical of me and never really understood what I was doing there. At first no one understood how I was an artist since I never made anything. I was Dale's friend, which I think helped a lot. We all got along though, and a lot of the time I was actually doing their work with them, driving forklifts and unloading trucks and stuff like that.
GF: What did you do there for your residency?
JM: For me, having the opportunity to assimilate into another culture is a work of art. To the extent that this is achievable in a week, I did it. Probably the most creative thing I've done in a while is navigate the warehouse with a pallet of patio furniture. I think anthropologists would make great artists, since their success, to a certain extent, is measured by not leaving a trace or making a ripple in the culture they're studying. So it's a kind of traceless output–an invisible output.
GF: That's an interesting position. So, for you, part of being a good artist is the extent to which you leave no trace. Ideally, your work has no output.
JM: I think that's at least partially right. I definitely contradict it all the time. If everything was purely conceptual it'd be very boring. But you certainly don't need to make some obtrusive thing to signify that you're an artist. I should say that the guys at J & J were creative people, and their output was visible. They had little shrines in the locker room, things they'd cut out of the newspaper and magazines. One guy had this beautiful Lindsay Lohan shrine and another guy had a Snooki collage in his cubbyhole. They may not give much thought to art, but they understood irony.
JM: I took a couple pictures but they turned out awful.
GF: I know you did two different projects. Talk about these.
JM: Well, the first one was in the locker room. This was an important place for the guys, a place where they could relax and joke around. They have an air-freshener in there–a commercial thing on a timer that spritzes out a fragrance every half-hour. When we went out with your friend Paul [Fittipaldi] he was talking about a project he did, filling one of those dispensers with cheap cologne. Apparently when he displayed this piece [Drakkar Noir, 2010] at one of your exhibitions, people felt oppressed by the fragrance, so much so that he had to take it down or turn it off–I can't remember. But he was saying it was a fragrance Americans equate with adolescent masculinity.
GF: I'd agree with that.
JM: Yes. I changed out the neutral fragrance in the locker room for this saccharine women's scent from Burberry. I loved the way it smelled–we were out at that bar in Williamsburg with the big foam cups [Rosemary's Greenpoint Tavern] and I had smelled it on a young woman there. It reminded me of the strippers in El Paso. I filled the air-freshener with this to see if the guys would react.
GF: How did they react?
JM: Everyone noticed it immediately, but at first no one could figure out where it was coming from. They would try to pin it on each other, trying to figure out who was wearing perfume. But they figured it out and by the end of the day most of older guys were annoyed, so I changed it back. Some of the guys thought it was funny.
GF: Do you think this was a successful piece?
JM: Not really. I thought the scent would be more subtle, but it lingered. It was a much heavier fragrance than I thought it would be. I thought it would spritz every half hour and then dissipate in a minute or two, but it stuck around and kept getting worse. And it was mixing with other locker room smells, like bathroom smells. It was an experiment. Somewhere down the road I'll make it work.
GF: What about Bernardo Soares?
JM: Two things struck me immediately when I got to J & J. The neighborhood is amazing. It's this warehouse surrounded by enormous condos, right on the East River. So it's this longstanding blue-collar business surrounded by yuppies who moved there in the last ten years or less. Second, it was the first time I had seen snow. So I knew I would do something with this and ended up making a dummy and put it on the roof. I wanted people from the condos to look down on the roof and see some figure, face-down in the snow. I thought it would be an interesting thing to have people think about. It's a good thing to have questions and not be able to get answers. I think that's one thing that I'm noticing now–you always have answers to everything. You'll be talking to someone and then something comes up and instead of it remaining a mystery, someone just looks it up on their iPhone. Unanswered questions, which are essential to life, are disappearing.
GF: Why did you call the dummy-piece Bernando Soares?
JM: I've been reading a lot of [Fernando] Pessoa. He wrote under different heteronyms. I think he made up that word himself. He had like seventy of them. Heteronyms are like psuedonyms–they're when an author writes under a different name. The difference is that heteronyms are completely different people, with different biographies, different traits and so on, where pseudonyms are just different names for the same person. Pessoa channeled these people, living and writing as different personas with different styles. Bernando Soares was the bookkeeper that wrote The Book of Disquiet, which is what I'm reading now. Pessoa wrote it, but he wrote it as Bernando Soares. Am I making sense?
GF: Yes, I think so. So this dummy on the roof is you? In some way at least?
JM: Yes. I'm not sure how, but yes.
GF: Is it still up there?
JM: No. Within minutes–five at the most–I was still on the roof when the receptionist called us–someone called the office complaining that there was a dummy on the roof so we had to take it down. I called Dale, but he didn't want it up there either.
GF: What were they complaining about?
JM: I don't know. Unknowns bother people.