Artist-Investigators Debby Kajiyama and José Navarrete recently had an exchange over email with the Triangle Lab about their investigation, The Anastasio Project. Read their discussions of race relations, border violence, youth involvement, and explorations of art forms below.
The Triangle Lab: Could you briefly describe “The Anastasio Project”?
Debby Kajiyama and José Navarrete: The Anastasio Project is a multidisciplinary public performance work that kickstarts an investigation of race relations, state brutality, and border violence using the story of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas as a point of departure. Hernandez-Rojas was a Mexican national who was detained at the US-Mexico border in May 2010. His detention ended not in deportation but with his death at the hands of a dozen Customs and Border Patrol agents.
Unfortunately, like the US-Mexico border, Oakland is no stranger to the issues of race and violence. We want to shine a light on the situation and encourage dialogue and reflection on the problems we face. The Anastasio Project is a multidisciplinary performance, using sound design, spoken word, movement and video design to bring light to issues affecting our community.
The mobile performances will take place around Eastside Cultural Center: October 26 & 28 and November 2 & 4, 2013. For this iteration, we will focus on four main sites:
- Taco Track Sinaloa, 22nd Ave and International Blvd
- Super Mercado “Mi Pueblo,” 29th and International Blvd
- Clinica de La Raza, Fruitvale and East 16th Street
- Fruitvale Plaza near the Fruitvale BART Station
TL: The Triangle Lab supports experiments where artists explore different ways of making work (HOW) and alternative places to make work (WHERE). Is this an exploration of where or how?
DK & JN: In our initial proposal, we said it was a “where” experiment, but now it is becoming a bit of both. We are getting out of the typical theater setting and see what happens when we bring performance to the streets. Instead of inviting audiences to come to a venue and buy a ticket, we bring the show to them. Instead of “we do a show, and you watch us,” we want to spark a dialogue in front of the taco truck or across from the BART station.
The “how” experiment starts by getting to know the stories of the performers working with us. We’re definitely clear that this work is about race, violence, profiling, power. At this time we are in the process of creating strong rapport with all the participants. Our challenge for this phase is to listen to what is “hot” in their lives today. What feels urgent to them? What stories do they need to tell; what movement comes out of their bodies? How can create an open space, yet give some guidance to help surface their personal stories, and find a vocabulary to contextualize their individual stories in a global frame? Another consideration of “where” is that three of our artists are from San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point district. We are contemplating ways to engage that community through our mobile performances in the longer term scope of The Anastasio Project.
TL: Why did you choose to focus on this issue?
DK & JN: NAKA has always been interested in social and environmental issues. Our last full-evening work, BAILOUT! is about the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Anastasio Project is about another long-term disaster in our environment that has been a long-time in the making and will take a long time to undo. Racism has the same characteristics to a devastating environmental disaster, as it destroys our humanity and perpetuates suffering and economic and social disadvantage.
A year ago, when Democracy Now broadcast newly-discovered cell phone footage of the beating of Hernandez-Rojas, we were devastated as we watched the border patrol inflict so much pain on another human being. People were screaming at the border patrol to stop; Anastasio was asking for clemency; but nothing stopped the officers, and they continued to beat him. To this day none of the border patrol have been held accountable. The border is a weapon of mass destruction, and we humans have become so desensitized to the suffering of others: in war, in police brutality, in the destruction of the environment.
TL: Could you tell us more about Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas?
DK & JN: Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas was a Mexican national, an undocumented immigrant who was detained and killed at the hands of a dozen Customs and Border Patrol agents in 2010. He had lived in San Diego since he was 14 and had five American-born children. He had been deported two months prior to his death. The case gained more attention in 2012 when a cell phone video surfaced that made people consider whether the federal agents used excessive force. His death has sparked a congressional inquiry, a federal grand jury investigation, and now legislative proposals to better train agents and hold them accountable for excessive use of force.
TL: How is the mobile nature of the piece connected to is content?
DK & JN: The show will use large trikes, mounted with mobile sound and video systems as part of the work. The use of trikes takes inspiration from the youth who hang around Eastside Cultural Center who built out their own trikes with sound systems. We asked The Bikery’s Matt Gereghty if he would help us build them out, and he was totally into it. Then he suggested that we actually donate the bikes to the collective in exchange so that other would be able to borrow the trikes when needed.
Performing in public spaces — across from the Fruitvale BART station or in front of the Sinaloa Taco Truck — will completely change the impact of whatever we do. The settings already have deep significance and a history.
As artists, we tend to create problems for ourselves so we can find ways to solve them. We want to be able to be adaptable; we want to dance and theater in unimaginable places. It is perhaps like playing Jazz; you can have set rhythm phrases in your mind but the deal is that when you are playing, anything can happen. The more in tune you are with the environment and your fellow players, the better chance the magic of art will surface.
TL: Why is it important to involve East Oakland youth in this project?
DK & JN: The youth that we’ve worked with are not afraid to tell the truth and have the potential to become vehicles for social change. We are concerned about their future, and the legacy that we leave for them. Most people from East Oakland are people of color and youth are likely targets for racial profiling and police brutality. Eastside already has a youth artists community. We want to learn from them; we want to know their perspective. What can we do together to change our reality?
TL: How have you been preparing to create a piece about this difficult and sensitive subject matter?
DK & JN: In early August, we hosted a Racial Equity training workshop by Tammy Johnson. Ten artist-activists and arts administrators joined us for an intensive discussion of issues. We’re still meeting monthly, and we’ve set up a Google Group to continue the conversation even when we’re not in the same room. There has since been a lot of conversation about topics such as:
- Talking about race and shame
- Private patrols in Dimond and Oakmore districts in Oakland
- Orange is the New Black
- Racism is like Cell Phones
We’re working on acknowledging our own privilege, being aware of the insidious and systemic nature of racism; and remaining vigilant and proactive in recognizing it.. We remind ourselves to place an emphasis on outcomes. Good intentions are fine but it’s the outcomes that really matter.
We are also fortunate to be working with Eastside Art Alliance. As difficult as these issues are, Eastside has been on the frontlines in the killing of Oscar Grant, raids in the Latino community, and more recently, the gentrification that is taking place around the center. Artists-activists find ways to express those issue through murals, guerrilla theater, spoken word, and close involvement with their community. Eastside staff are also our mentors for this project.