An Interview With Julia Barbosa Landois 

click to enlarge RAMIN SAMANDARI
  • Ramin Samandari

2013 was a very busy year for Julia Barbosa Landois, the San Antonio-based performance, installation, and video artist. Star-Crossed II, a video describing a woman’s relationship with Jesus through ranchera song, was included in the McNay “He Said, She Said” exhibition curated by Chris Davila. The more you honor Me, the more I will bless you, was visible as an around-the-clock video installation at Box 13 Artspace in Houston. Her Window Works Artpace installation Buried, not Dead, which traces the life of ant farms and human migration, wrapped up just on December 29.

Landois’  performance piece Culo de Oro is a collaboration with musician Erik Sanden about the sex trade in Boystown, Nuevo Laredo. For it, she interviewed men who had gone to the red-light district either to engage in sex, or to watch the notorious Donkey Show. As a live performance, Landois and Sanden perform pop and country tunes and interview excerpts in a satirical cantina atmosphere. Landois and Sanden reprised the performance for this year’s Texas Biennial.

In 2014, Landois will continue to collaborate with Sanden on a new performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, and in Montreal for the Hemispheric Institute Encuentro. About this work, Landois says “[it] will include original writing and music. It's about a journey, inspired by immigration, but also dreams and the drive to metaphorically ‘find your own way.’”

You've got an interesting combination of elements in your work. Do you use humor to make the dark themes more palatable to an audience?

Well, it's not necessarily just more palatable to an audience, humor also gets me through it. Because that piece in particular [Culo de Oro], doing the research was so hard at times. Interviewing people who I knew personally was not sobad, because there's an empathy there, and it's a lot more complicated when you know more about who they are. But [with] the web research, you can go down this internet rabbit hole, [which] puts you in this really frightening place.

I started researching it when I was in Philadelphia during grad school, and to be alone in this tiny apartment in the middle of the night looking at sex tourism websites was scary. [The johns on the sex tourism sites] say shockingly misogynist things, because they think that they’re the only audience. So I'm waking up in the morning, and I'm seeing men on the street, thinking “is it you? Is it you?”

To find a way to get in touch with how ridiculous it all is... how do you deal with knowing that that's in the world? It is absurd, and comedy is a way to deal with that.

It was interesting to watch the audience respond to (the Culo de Oro performance), because we were visible to you. It wasn't totally anonymous. You can make eye contact.

There’s nothing like eye contact. It's so powerful. It's such a small device, but it really takes people by surprise. Now we get even less eye contact, because we’re communicating by computer.

I think that with humor in that piece, and Star-Crossed II, these pieces with angry feminist content, humor is a way of checking myself, checking my own self-righteousness and laughing at that. I think if I had done the donkey show project when I was 18, it would have been like “every guy is a big asshole— any man who goes to Boystown has got to hate women.” Oh, but it's a lot more complicated than that.

There’s so much stigma and baggage associated with being a “feminist artist,” how do you deal with that?

I didn't set out to be a performance artist back when I was a teenager. I read books about them, and thought they were very cool, but I was also aware of the stigma. “Ooh look, a feminist performance artist, getting naked and smearing blood all over herself, screaming and talking about her vagina!” I'm always partly afraid that I will be construed as that.

I don't want to tone down the message because of that, but I don't want to be seen as that either, because it just flips the switch in peoples’ brains. It turns them off. It's not something they think they like.

Ever feel like you have to shy away from the f-word? Like the word is too constraining?

No. No, I think it would bother me more to be considered “a woman artist.” I feel that it's like being called “a lady doctor.”

The double-edged sword is that there's a stereotype of the feminist performance artist being naked all the time. But there's also a trend among younger women artists to get naked all the time. In grad school, I had male professors who would say “you've got to naked for this piece.” It wasn't even about their relationship with me, they’d just say “you've got to be naked, it would be so much more powerful.” And I think it was less about sexualizing me than… I think they came out of the ’80s. The art scene in the ’80s and ’90s, I think it was a big part of that. It’s going to sound weird, but I would like to see a lot more naked elderly men. (Laughs.) Naked elderly women, or people of different sizes.

You’ve talked about the concept of about “Latino art,” how it gets labeled, what the media appropriation of it is. How do you place your work within that? Do you think of yourself as a Latina artist?

It's a complicated question because I grew up in a really assimilationist household. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish, [although] my grandparents were from Mexico, and spoke Spanish. I heard Spanish all the time, but we weren’t taught Spanish, and we weren’t even brought up to identify as Mexican-American. My dad is white, so in San Antonio, I could be anything to anyone.

But I was in Georgia for two years. And there it was really thrown into relief, because people would ask me “what are you? What are you mixed with?”

In grad school, it was interesting because I would make references in my work, cultural references, and nobody would get them. I had one professor, he was Cuban- and Spanish-American, and I clung to him like barnacle.

Do you remember a specific piece when nobody got the references?

Yeah, I made a video that depicted an egg cleaning. It was really about feeling guilty, like your soul hurts, and trying to purge yourself of those feelings. And the critique—we weren't allowed to really say anything during the critique—the critique at the end of the semester was totally public, anyone in the school could come and see you get brutalized. It was good, in a way. I developed a thick skin. I showed the video, and the critics were saying things like, “oh look, it's an egg, it's obviously about her fertility. Her biological clock is ticking, she’s thinking about having children, and this is a really overdone bland feminist topic.”

They had no idea. And there was even some Spanish in the voiceover. Made me think a lot about how much context we need to provide. If you're making work with a specific cultural reference, are you limiting the audience you reach? And I think, maybe all work only reaches a limited audience. Maybe if you're reaching a completely broad audience, it's hotel art. Like Thomas Kinkade. But you don't want it to be so specific that people don't get any of what it's about.

What were you into, when you were a kid? What kind of teenager were you?

I was pretty strong academically, but I was a total misfit. I was reading a lot of underground feminist lesbian magazines, stuff like that. I listened to a lot of punk rock, I was going to the DMZ for punk shows.

At the anniversary of Kennedy’s death, I thought, I should go listen to that Misfits song “Bullet.” You know, “Texas is the reason that the President’s dead.” I have it somewhere on an old tape. But I looked up the lyrics, and they were horrible!

As a kid into punk rock, the sexism in it was disappointing. l was at a party once, and I wanted to put on a song by Bikini Kill. And all these guys were saying “God, I hate these feminazis!” I thought ‘great, here I am hanging out with all these punk rockers who want to start a revolution. This is the revolution?” Some 40-year-old guy in the corner digging change out of the couch cushions to go buy a 32-ounce Busch beer.

Now you're raising a daughter. I'm sure these issues come up in how you parent her.

Yeah, of course I think about the future for her, I'm concerned about reproductive rights in particular. But it's great that [mothering] is mostly very empowering for me. Like when I was in labor, or before actually, I remember hearing from people, friends of mine were pregnant, they didn't want their husbands present, they wanted a cesarean for this reason or another. And when I was actually in [the delivery room] squatting next to the table (laughs), and this sound comes out of you, like an animal sound... I really felt part of something bigger, beyond me, and I never thought it would feel like this. Not just the pain, but the real power! You can get through anything! You are anything but self-conscious. That's empowering in a way that I didn't expect.

How about some recommendations. What music would you suggest young artists listen to?

Nina Simone is really important to me. Like I was saying about self-consciousness… In that voice she has, it just comes from somewhere else, she's angry, and she's so present. She's completely unselfconscious and no one sounds like her.

And Neil Young... any Neil Young.

What are some places you recommend going in San Antonio to recharge, or for inspiration?

Papa Jim's is always a good place for me. The River reach at sunset when all the animals are starting to come out. It reminds you that the city is part of this larger ecology, it's not all suburbs and tourism. And the flea market—the Poteet one. It’s so big, and if you go on a nice day, there's people dancing… there’s great life there.

A favorite movie?

So many...One great one is In the Mood for Love. A director from Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai. The colors are really saturated, and it's full of these really long, slow shots. It's all about longing.

Any favorite websites?

I don't know if I have a favorite, but I spent the fall researching how to turn acorns into food. I tried to, but I didn't have enough patience. I boiled and boiled acorns in water, changed the water... I guess originally, you’d put your basket of acorns in the river, and the water would just keep washing over them. Now, not so much. In the end I fed one to [Landois’ partner] Dan and he said,  “Well, I guess I would eat it if I was starving.”

Part of me has a little homesteader bent. I’ve grown my own vegetables, I’ve made granola, made sauerkraut. I've done it all.

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