Interview with artist Alice Leora Briggs
A lone middle-aged woman crosses the bridge to Ciudad JuÃ¡rez. The short distance from El Paso, Texas to JuÃ¡rez is a walk into hell. A zone of torture, execution and mutilation, where people move in a state of fear and silence.
Between 2007-2009, Alice Leora Briggs ventured this walk alone to document the horrors, morgues, asylums, and death houses only steps from our border. The results are sgrafitto drawings that accompany journalist Charles Bowdens book, Dreamland: The Way out of JuÃ¡rez. Harsh and detailed, Briggs uses an X-acto knife to cut through India ink on clay to create images that blend reality and myth with modern-day hyper-violence and calavera imagery, the political and satirical skeletons of turn-of-the century Mexican cartoonist Jose Posada, usually seen on Dia de Los Muertos.
Briggs is from Lubbock, Texas. I sat down with her in Snowmass, Colorado where she is an artist-in-resident at Anderson Ranch.
Hilary Stunda: To be out of that abysmal world and in a place like Aspen must feel surreal. Disneyland on steroids compared to JuÃ¡rez.
Alice Leora Briggs: I feel like Im in the Bermuda Triangle.
HS: Compared with the intense 10-month seclusion you had at the Border Art Residency in New Mexico, here you are one of many artists. Does this make a difference in how and what you create?
AB:Most of the people at the Ranch are making things that are more poetic. Its not that I am opposed to poetry. Im interested in making poetry out of these things. Derek Wolcott said it well: “The poet falls in love with the world in spite of its history.” Its like that. I made my first wood cut here. Now Im working on the 2nd one. I have two sentences from [Cormac McCarthys] Suttree “A curtain is rising on the Western World. A rain of soot, dead beetles and anonymous small bones. The audience sits webbed in the dust.” But everything is changing. I dont know what Im going to do after I leave, whether or not Im not going to go back and incorporate sgraffito or if everything is changing radically in terms of media.
HS: Seems fitting after Dreamland. Was that your first foray into dark subject matter?
AB:Ive always made images about this kind of material. When I was seven I had an experience close up and personal with a violent death. My brother was fifteen and climbing at the Tetons when he fell. Subsequently, I spent about eight years trying to pretend that it couldnt possibly have happened. In a lot of ways it was perfect preparation for a place like JuÃ¡rez where every day there are rapes, disappearances, murders. Every day people try to pretend that rapes, disappearances and murders arent really happening. I think its getting harder to pretend.
HS:This collective denial that sets over everyone. Fear of the reality. For those that are left, how do they function? Theres Portrait of Chuck Bowdenno way to make a living.
AB:There are a lot of people who have dual citizenship. In JuÃ¡rez , its neither Mexico or the United States. The frontera is a land of its own. If youve got the means, youre over the bridge.
HS: How did the Border Art Residency evolve?
AB: I was involved with Dreamland and stumbled onto this residency because Peter, my husband, is a curator. He went down to see the sculptor who founded it. The Border Residency isnt necessarily related to border topics. Normally they like to support sculptures and conceptual work. I told them I was interested because I wanted to be near the border so I could go back and forth. This was an old cotton gin that was remodeled.
HS: When you returned to the residency after spending time in JuÃ¡rez who could you talk to for solace?
AB: It was a solo residency. I was working really hard. There were times when I didnt go outside for several days at a time. And when I did, Id go to JuÃ¡rez . It was surreal. I would have these interactions with people but they were isolated events. A French reporter who writes for the equivalent of Time magazine. Chuck [Charles Bowden] would come by. The librarian, Molly Maloy. Shes keeping a count, more than anybody else, in the US media. Its not like any of them are that reliable because theyll find bodies that have been toasting underground since last year. They cant date a lot of these executions. And then the people who ran the residency lived across the street. But I intentionally isolated myself.
HS: How does grafitto fulfill your ideal form of expression?
AB: These things are very visceral. Like some people prefer food of one texture over another. I just like to cut things. And I like things that have humble origins. Sgraffitos base is in craft, in terms of vessels and in wall decorations. I was in Prague last May and the exterior of a building was done in sgraffito – its an ancient technique, basically meaning scratching through. When I make a mark I like it to be something – theres a irrevocable nature to that. Right now, Im building up to things where Ill work first in pencil, then Ill come back with ink and then come back with a tool that cuts.
HS: Do you waver much from drawing?
AB: Drawing is the core of everything. It cuts to the chase. There arent too many places you can hide with that. I still make installations- the biggest one Ive ever made was about 1300 sq. feet – big architectural pieces. I recently did a piece on Platos Allegory of the Cave. Five panels that have the entire text in braille. The holes were drills so you actually looked through the braille. I really believe in nature in terms of strategy – people do things and then make up the explanations later. For this piece, its like looking through language and perceiving it as the net that it is – trying to grab anything. Thats really what the text of The Cave is about – perception.
HS: How do you begin to illustrate such grimness? Does it begin as a fragment that takes its own course?
AB: Yes. I dont have much respect for anything. Ill use anything. In terms of associations its like everything in terms of time has collapsed with the internet. The past is on the same level as the present. Its all here.
HS: Do the images come to you in a series or does one give rise to the other?
AB: Well, its different for different things. Sometimes I start in one corner and it becomes a series of mistakes. You do something and then you try to abort it. But then it becomes like a hydra, it grows more heads. Often Chuck [Bowden] will refer to his writing in terms of music. Hell listen to one piece of music throughout – over and over and over. Theres this segment in Dreamland called Lalos Song. I kept experimenting with ways to represent Lalo. One morning I was lying in bed and I thought, “Oh my God, hes a singing canary! Lalo was extradited to the United States. Hes in jail and hes talking.” So thats where the image of the canary with all of this pattern coming out of his mouth came from.
HS: Did you have several point persons who helped you navigate the city?
AB: Yes. The main one was Julian Cardona. Previously, he was a photographer. More recently he has been writing. He feels he needs to make a record of whats going on in his city. He grew up in JuÃ¡rez and worked in the Maquilla. He has a big gash in his head from some piece of machinery that flew off and bashed him in the skull years ago. Hes managed somehow to work independently. Because he feels strongly about staying there and recording it…
HS: Youd think hed be a target – a threat to the system.
AB: You never know. Its not like some big conspiracy. Its just chaos. It could be that somebody would kill you for fun.
HS: Dreamland is a testament to a true creative collaboration.. You werent documenting Bowdens work so much as riffing on your own reactions to JuÃ¡rez.
AB: I did a lot of the work thats in the book before we even met. Thats how close the undercurrents were. Its weird.
HS: But you resonated with his work before. Thats how he found out about you- you sent him a CD of your images. Perhaps you knew the topic was one you were ultimately prepared for.
AB: Yes. My husband recognized that the undercurrent in my work and Chucks bore an uncanny resemblance. It was at his urging that I sent the CD. Ive always been tuned into language. Ive always listened to books on tape versus music when Im working because I can disappear.
HS: Tell me about the alphabet-piece, Abecedario de JuÃ¡rez
AB: Like Hans Holbeins 1538 alphabet, death is at the core of Abecedario de JuÃ¡rez. Its a polyptych depicting the daily life in JuÃ¡rez, that killing is an industry as well as an entertainment. Abecedario de JuÃ¡rez is the “˜rosetta stone for a new language rising out of JuÃ¡rez and the visual accompaniment for a glossary of narco terminology. A book of these “ABCs” will fix aspects of an ever evolving language that is secretive by nature. It will inevitably be a history book. Many words and meanings will have fallen out of use before the pages are bound. I am beginning to add the words that constitute this new glossary.
HS: Now that youve survived this project – literally – do you want to immerse yourself into projects of the same intensity?
AB: Last May I went to Poland on the Dallas Museum of Arts dime – they have a travel grant. I wanted to go to Auschwitz/Birkenau because what interests me is not just this situation now, but the situation historically. Situations in which human behavior play on this edge. Unfortunately, JuÃ¡rez is not a unique situation. You encounter people who make a choice for utter depravity; others who make quite a different choice. I met a steel worker from San Diego in JuÃ¡rez. He may have been illegal or he had a worker permit, Im not sure, but he got heavily involved with cocaine, was in prison for a while, was deported and now hes back in JuÃ¡rez . He started going around collecting people off the streets. He built an asylum. He feeds and cares for 100-115 people. This Fall it will be 15 years. Its like the kind of asylum that would have been closed down yesterday if it was in the US. People range from down syndrome to violent schizophrenics. Its like walking onto the set of King of Hearts! Its a free for all. Its a happy place though as weird as it sounds.
HS: Thats wild. In a twisted, macabre way, JuÃ¡rez is a trove to pull from…
AB: Yes. Im not finished going there. Its hard to verbalize but its like a car accident. Once you know there are these people out on the highway, turning over and bleeding, you keep going back for all sorts of reasons. Its not like I have some kind of Messianic zeal. That becomes a part of it. But its like, look, you need to know this is happening. For me, that resonates on a real, core level with one of the seminal experiences in my life-losing my brother in this bizarre accident. Just driving around youll see soldiers in the back of a truck pointing automatic weapons at the traffic as you go by. What are they looking for? Is it just entertainment or are they hoping for a target?
HS: Does such a rabid confrontation of death lessen the fear of it?
AB: Its when you feel most alive.
(top photo: Alice Leora Briggs “Gun + Smoke” sgraffito drawing. 2007. 12″ x 30″)