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Slanguage Speaks Slanguage

Top image: “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” 2015, Artist Lab Residency, 18th Street Arts Center. | Photo: Courtesy of Slanguage Studio.

By Betty Marín

Since April, Slanguage Studio artists Monica A. Martinez, Emilio Venegas Jr., Karla Diaz, and Mario Ybarra Jr. have taken over the 18th Street Arts Center gallery as Artist Lab residents. Their residency and exhibition, “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost” is on view through June 26th. Central to their project is a speculative fiction narrative they developed over the course of their residency, which has generated several short films and will culminate in a limited-edition comic book. Their story introduces us to an underground homeless rebel group leading a futurist revolution to protect their city from the powers that be.

The speculative fiction world of the 18th Street Arts Center installation is one version of the hybrid cultural spaces Slanguage inhabits. This narrative speaks to the collective’s identity bridging vernacular and high art forms, and their almost fifteen year history of surviving and thriving with limited financial support. By valuing street culture and other histories often dismissed by the same institutions with which they are in dialogue, Slanguage claims a piece of the art world on their own terms and speaks their own artistic language.

“Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” 2015, Artist Lab Residency, 18th Street Arts Center. | Photo: Courtesy of Slanguage Studio.

Within the gallery space, they’ve created a rich installation composed of video and other artifacts, telling about this fictional world and the characters that live there. Using the gallery “as a lab and art studio,” as co-founder Karla Diaz describes, the artists first presented research, which eventually grew into the exhibition on view. Research included the materials they collected to build costumes for their characters and some of the drawing and writing exercises that led them to the speculative fiction narrative at the heart of their residency. The intention of the Artist Lab Residency is precisely for artists to experiment and create a project that an audience can see and interact with during its development. Diaz explains how they “built characters and landscapes of different futuristic, sci-fi worlds” through cosplay, collaborative automatic writing, and drawing workshops, and by recording videos and sound.

Walking through the gallery, visitors see larger-than-life collaged portraits of the characters performed by the artists, videos with these characters in action, and a small model of their innovative city with figures arranged for battle. The elements that make up the exhibition also speak to Slanguage’s process of making do within an economy of means. The collective’s research included visiting a professional studio that has manufactured some of Hollywood’s most popular monsters and superheroes, using the excitement and inspiration from the site visit to create their own imaginative costumes. They drew from more humble resources, purchasing items from local second-hand and dollar stores. The resulting objects embody a street aesthetic, but perhaps even more, they represent Slanguage’s larger philosophy of working, one that Diaz maintains is rooted in knowing that as “as an artist you have to be able to work with what you have.”

“Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” 2015, Artist Lab Residency, 18th Street Arts Center. | Photo: Courtesy of Slanguage Studio.

Slanguage’s low-tech approach draws on the rasquache aesthetic, referencing a lower class sensibility, appropriated by Chicano artists in the 1960s to describe an artistic response to limited resources that was both visionary and defiant. Slanguage uses this rasquache aesthetic to create fantastical characters that don’t neatly occupy our typical understanding of reality. Using this aesthetic to become “other” within the speculative fiction realm, they are referencing questions common to that world with regards to identity, culture, and race. While their identities as working-class artists of color aren’t necessarily central to how Slanguage describe themselves, Diaz acknowledges that as artists of color, they often “occupy a third space”: a concept attributed to cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha, who describes it as a productive hybrid space where those who are considered different or “other” can represent themselves in multiple ways that complicate limited definitions upheld by those in power. The art world is not exempt from these power structures or from the limitations that they produce and uphold. The speculative fiction genre has frequently served as a metaphorical third space, one where artists of color (such as authors Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Junot Díaz) creatively figure out how to exist within the mainstream. The futuristic homeless rebels whom Slanguage artists embody, like Risk, “the evil genius and hero leader of the homeless people,” represent this hybridity and multiplicity, reflecting how this alternate world escapes control by both the real oppressors of our society and the mythical oppressors of their invented construction.

“Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” 2015, Artist Lab Residency, 18th Street Arts Center. | Photo: Courtesy of Slanguage Studio.

Slanguage has grown and endured based on inventing and reinventing their own context for working, their own third space, whether within an art institution or outside of it. In fact, the third space and speculative fiction domains speak to the beginnings of Slanguage as well, and in particular how they chose their name. Some of the founding members of Slanguage were inspired by the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” in which two key characters speak in a mixed language that draws from Spanish, Chinese, and other languages, producing a kind of evolved tongue. Diaz sees this hybrid language as a symbol for what Slanguage is and their role in bridging an institutional art language with a street language. “That’s where we have always wanted to be as contemporary artists, we are in that third world cusp of this futuristic hybrid language.” Speaking to their position within the art world, Diaz continues, “it’s not really an institutional/official language and its not only from the streets, its both: it’s Slanguage.”

It helps to know that Slanguage came into existence in 2002 in a small storefront in Wilmington, CA, a part of the Port of Los Angeles unknown to even native Angelenos. Co-founders Diaz and Ybarra Jr. talk about how the art collective was born, describing how people just started showing up and using a space they intended to use primarily for their own studio practices. When Slanguage opened in this largely immigrant and Latino working-class city, there were few to no other community or art spaces. Not surprisingly, the space quickly became a de-facto gathering place and studio for local artists, many of them street artists. Slanguage Studio grew to be a contemporary exhibition space, complete with an artist residency program, but also functioned as a community hub and art center, simultaneously filling multiple vital needs in Wilmington. Slanguage has continued as a multi-generational site for learning, mentorship, and exchange for dozens of local, national, and international artists who have shaped what this unique art collective is today, both in Wilmington and in the other sites where they’ve worked.

The ability to both value the cultural production of the communities with whom they work, and speak to contemporary art institutions, is part of the mentoring approach that is central to the collective’s practice. Their residency at 18th Street also reflects their desire to mentor and create a platform for younger artists like Martinez and Venegas Jr. within a respected contemporary art institution, early on in their careers. By connecting artists to major art institutions where they might not otherwise have access, they are also expanding what these institutions value. Slanguage artists have exhibited in venues including MOCA Los Angeles, the Tate Modern in London, and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, to name a few. In exchange for the training, exposure, and access artists receive, they offer their energy and ideas, which in turn keep the collective moving forward. “We expect a high level of dedication and multi-tasking as well as other skills that we feel can work well with us. In return, we can offer a sort of de-facto school/education for artists — exposure that many young people don’t get even after they get their MFAs,” Diaz says. She understands that this reciprocity is what sustains the collective. “As much as we give at Slanguage — be it in knowledge, a space, a table to work or hold community meetings, or art materials, each person that worked and works with us has always given to us. Maybe not necessarily in money, but certainly their time, their ideas, their energy, their imagination, their vision, their stories, their jokes, their struggles… that’s more than anybody can give in money,” she points out. Even when artists “graduate” from Slanguage, those relationships are ongoing. Diaz maintains, “Once you are part of Slanguage, you will always be part of Slanguage, even if you leave us. In fact, we want you to leave and grow and use all the skills we have taught you or you have learned working with us.” Different generations of artists have benefited from this education, which in turn has promoted art making rooted in criticality, curiosity, experimentation, and locality.

Since all members continue to be part of the collective even if working outside of it, Slanguage still maintains a strong presence in Wilmington through these artists, even after moving out of their storefront space a few years ago. Their last studio, Third World, was located near the border between Wilmington and Long Beach, another port city. For the first time since they opened in 2002, they do not have a working space in the South Bay of Los Angeles, though they still call Wilmington home.

Whether they are in Wilmington, or some other part of the city or country, Slanguage continues to work based on the original desire that landed them in Wilmington: to have a working artist studio. “There are different spaces and communities we are working with, but you have to remember our intent when we first started Slanguage was not to be a public space. It was intended to be our studio space. That intent has not changed,” Diaz asserts. While their early intentions were focused in having a place to produce, they had also hoped that their studio might be site for dialogue and exchange with other artists. This happened naturally with the local artists that contributed to making Slanguage Studio an artist-run community space since the very beginning.

Serendipitously, during this era of their career, Slanguage has been invited to do three different residencies in multiple sites around Los Angeles, including their residency at 18th Street. Diaz says they “are looking at these opportunities to continue to grow and develop [their] work.” “We have some people that, despite our situations over the years, have continued to follow us and support our work,” referring to institutions like 18th Street Arts Center and LAXART which have invited them to do projects in residence. Slanguage first exhibited and ran programming at LAXART during their show “This is a Takeover,” part of the Made in L.A. Biennial in 2012. They have used their yearlong residency at LAXART in 2015 as a site for public education programs such as Slanguage Juniors, their art classes for kids, and their “You Gotta See it, To Be it” series, inviting other artists to talk about their work and process to serve as models for younger Slanguage artists still developing their practice. Meanwhile, they are experimenting with a single new conceptual project at 18th Street. The two sites sometimes overlap, as when they interviewed artists Jessica Kaire and Stefan Benchoam of NuMu (the Nuevo Museo de Guatemala, a contemporary art museum in Guatemala City), who were in residence in June through 18th Street’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA collaboration with LACMA. Both residencies, at 18th Street and LAXART, have given them opportunities to continue their convivial working methods, work with artists of different generations, and maintain an important stake in the vibrant contemporary art scene of Los Angeles.

By using these residencies as sites where artists can learn from each other, Slanguage is creating settings of mutual support that are scarce in the art world. The title of the show “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” comes from the somewhat menacing message displayed at the end of Nintendo video games. This playful title actually speaks to the urgency of recording your experience, or risk losing it forever. It is a good reminder to celebrate and take note of the critical work of Slanguage over the past decade. At this point in their career they continue to keep their work and the spirit of their work alive. Residencies, like the one at 18th Street, are safe spaces for them to build on redefining and expanding the language of contemporary art.

“Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” 2015, Artist Lab Residency, 18th Street Arts Center. | Photo: Courtesy of Slanguage Studio.







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