Published on October 6th, 2013 | by Apuntes LJ0
On the Intersection of Activism, Art, and Education
An Interview with Neil Rivas
Apuntes: So who is Neil Rivas? How do you define yourself to the public?
NR: I’m an artist. I am also an educator, documentarian, and an activist. Sometimes I am a journalist. All these things influence each other.
Apuntes: Tell us about growing up. What are the things you remember most about your early life?
NR: I grew up in Los Angeles, all over LA. I moved around quite a bit, experienced living in several neighborhoods. I’ve lived in places from Long Beach to Palmdale, from one end of the county to the other. I had to switch schools a lot, so I was always the new kid. But it also helped me by making me capable of adapting to situations really well. I remember dancing a lot as a kid. I also remember the time that I spent in El Salvador during the late 80s and early 90s.
Apuntes: How old were you then?
NR: Well, in 1988 I was five. That’s the first time that I went that I have a memory of. From then, over the next several years, I went back to El Salvador various times. One of the times I remember going alone. And I would stay there for different lengths of time. . . I remember the war, but as a young child I didn’t really know what was going on. I would hear bombs, explosives, and all I thought of was GI Joe, the cartoon series. That’s one way I related to that sort of thing. One day I would be there hearing guns going off and then the next I’d be watching Sgt. Slaughter and his friends doing it on TV in my parents’ studio apartment in LA.
Apuntes: Did you live within Latino communities in Los Angeles?
NR: All over, really. Early on, it was mostly Latino, African-American, and Asian communities. Included are places like Koreatown and the Westlake area. Those areas look a lot different now, particularly the Echo Park area.
Apuntes: I am familiar with those areas. I went to Belmont High, near Echo Park.
NR: Oh, so you know the Mac Arthur Park area as well. I’ve spent a lot of time over there, especially when I was growing up. Pasadena is another place where I spent some years in. I used to live right by the 210 freeway.
Apuntes: Later you studied philosophy at Cal State Long Beach. Did anything in particular motivate that selection of major?
NR: To be honest, I was always a fan of education, but not necessarily a fan of school, or more specifically, the curriculum that I was being taught. So I eventually started educating myself on things that I found interesting, that I could identify with. Otherwise, it was going to be too boring. And I could never identify with George Washington anyways. But if you spoke to me about, say, Jackie Robinson, or Roque Dalton [a Salvadoran poet and journalist, considered one of Latin America's most compelling poets], well, there you had a combination of heroes that I identified with.
When I got to college, I was actually trying to decide whether I wanted to study math or journalism. I decided to go into journalism, but unfortunately the journalism program at Cal State Long Beach wasn’t accredited at the time. Then, during the second semester of my freshman year, I began working at the radio station on campus and eventually was one of two people managing it. This was also right around the same time that I was really getting my feet wet with community organizing. During that semester, I took a philosophy class with a guy who had a positive influence on me, so I kept taking more philosophy classes.
Apuntes: I also noticed you studied in Cambodia for some time. Tell me about that.
NR: I studied there for not even a semester, more like a session. I took a class through Paññāsāstra University in Phnom Penh. It was when I went to do some work with an NGO [non-governmental organization] called The Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, that focuses on rescuing children from the sex-traffic market.
I went there with a group and to do separate work of my own. I got a small grant to do the separate projects. Most of it involved facilitating photography workshops. But I would do other things too, like teach the kids math in the evenings, whenever I would get invited to stay. I would teach them some English also, and they would teach me how to curse in Khmer.
Apuntes: And at what point did you decide you were an artist, or wanted to become an artist?
NR: I wanted to become an artist since I was a kid, although I don’t think I called it that. Comic books were one of the early influences. I loved them as a child and whenever I would have a hard time back then, I would turn to them, as an escape, I guess you could say. I also liked the aesthetics: I thought they were cool.
When my father was younger, he wanted to become an artist himself, but unfortunately, he didn’t have the resources or the right circumstances. He passed on a lot of that artistic hunger on to me, I think. And I have a lot of family members that are also very creative. Lots of talent, particularly when it comes to cooking. One of my grandparents was a carpenter, too. I remember him making beautiful furniture pieces, even made me a couple of toys when I was in El Salvador. Several people and things have influenced me. As I got older, I didn’t think art was a real option: I thought it was only for rich kids. In my community, it was difficult to be accepted and respected as an artist. It was only when I was already in college that I started to reconsider whether being an artist could be an option for me. So I eventually decided to go for it, however I could. Wanting to use it as a tool for activism was the biggest influence, I think. At about the same time, I fell in love with photography, too, so I eventually started to search for ways to combine the two.
Apuntes: Would you consider your work unique? How you do you think you would fit within art history?
Well, I do strive to make art in different ways than usually done, so I guess I hope people think it’s unique. I have different objectives with different projects and I work with a variety situations, so that often requires the willingness to find new strategies to get new ideas accomplished. I would say that I make art with any media necessary and with whatever is available. There’s a binary that exists in my practice, with both sides feeding off each other. There’s my photography, which is sometimes also used as journalism or legal documentation, and then there’s my other stuff: often times, installations, community-based projects, or performances.
As for other artists whose work has had an influence on me somehow, Pepón Osorio was one early on, when I was doing my undergrad. I love his work. Later on, there was also Cildo Meireles, Asco, and The Yes Men. I also have a lot of respect for the work of Ricardo Dominguez. And then there are those who might not even be identified as contemporary artists, even though I seem them that way, like Stephen Colbert or the folks who do The Pinky Show. I think they’re brilliant.
Apuntes: Most of the people reading this will have no prior knowledge of your ICE project. Please define it for them.
NR: Well, we are now sitting in the San Francisco Field Office for the US Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Illegal Superheroes, otherwise known as ICE DISH. It’s located at 24th & Bryant in the heart of the Mission of San Francisco, at Galería de la Raza. ICE DISH is a law enforcement agency responsible for identifying, investigating, and dismantling vulnerabilities regarding the nation’s border, economic, transportation, and infrastructure security.
If undocumented people can be declared “illegal” due to our government’s current immigration policies, then it is ICE DISH’s view that the same must be applied to undocumented superheroes. ICE DISH’s mission is to enforce this idea by raising awareness about pertinent issues, conducting further investigations, and working towards the detainment and deportation of illegal superheroes.
The agency has different sets of operations, some which are run out of this space that we’re sitting in. Most recently, ICE DISH was at the Museum of Latin American Art for the first-ever Latino Comics Expo L.A. The next operation will be at the Cartoon Art Museum on October 19th through an event organized by Kearny Street Workshop.
Apuntes: Do you create comic books, posters, or videos? How exactly do you get your message across?
NR: Well, I created the agency and it operates under the direction of a guy named Tanner White. The team of agents includes: Will D. Port, Alanna Haight, Juana Wrights and recent additions Ray Jin and Eugene Hicks. ICE DISH has also had assistance from Captain America on certain occasions. For example, late last year, ICE DISH re-commissioned the Immigration Station at Angel Island [near San Francisco], where Superman, Supergirl, and Thor are were detained for several months. Captain America helped them welcome the public with an announcement. The facility at Angel Island was actually used by the U.S. government to detain primarily Asian immigrants detention center during the first half of the 20th century. Many of them used fake identities, including those who were labeled “paper sons and daughters”. So ICE DISH felt it only made sense to keep modern day “paper son” Superman there, along with the others who also are reported by ICE DISH to have used fake identities. For a while, people who visited the Immigration station were able to see the installation through different parts of the facility.
But overall, so far you might say it’s been a combination of performance, installation, posters with hotlines, photography, and more recently, video.
Apuntes: Is it interactive?
NR: It depends on the operation, but in general, yes, ICE DISH interacts with the public.
Apuntes: Does this evolve? Does it change? Is there an ultimate moment in the production? How does it work?
NR: Oh, every moment is an ultimate moment. It’s all been really fun so far. And yes, it is always changing and evolving. It started with just some posters.
Apuntes: So, once the comprehensive immigration reform act passes, is the project done?
NR: I’m not completely sure how specific legislation would affect the agency shutting down operations, but I’m guessing that Tanner White will do it whenever he feels it’s right, I guess. You never know what’s going to happen. Maybe one day the agency might even go into outer space. Like in the Marvel and DC Universes, the possibilities are endless. Take Batman for example, how long has that guy been around for and so many different ways. As long as there’s a reason for ICE DISH to exist, I think it will be around. But again, you’d have to ask Director Tanner White to really know.
Apuntes: You had exhibits in El Salvador, Guatemala, Japan, and all over the United States, which is pretty remarkable for such a young person. Tell us about those experiences.
NR: The international exhibitions, with the exception of the one in Japan, came about through involvement in those communities and/or artist residencies that I did. I lived in Central America for two years, mainly in El Salvador and then also spent some time in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua for various reasons. But while I was over there I immersed myself into some of the local art communities, different ones, and I had some really special moments over there. It was an amazing experience and I met some incredible people and places.
I also worked for Prensa Contrapunto, a newspaper that was started by Juan José Dalton, one of the sons of Roque Dalton, who is an amazing writer in his own right. And I was one of the photographers on the campaign trail with Mauricio Funes, who won the election and is now the president of El Salvador. I got to work with amazing photojournalists like Christian Poveda, just before he was assassinated by one of the local gangs. I also taught at the Escuela de Jóvenes Talentos en Artes [School for Young Talents in the Arts], which was the first of its kind in El Salvador. Between my colleagues and the kids there, probably one of my favorite groups that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I was very lucky and I met amazing friends. My second year in the region, I split my time between Tegucigalpa [capital of Honduras] and San Salvador.
Apuntes: You consider yourself a photojournalist, an educator, and a community organizer. Tell us how you see those interests intersecting.
NR: All of those roles inform the others and the nexus is art for me. For example, my community organizing experiences have had helped me in community-based art projects, which are also fueled by my interests in education and the experiences that I’ve had as an educator. And many of those experiences have come through using photography. Sometimes my photography from larger bodies of work will also be used as legal evidence, archive, or journalism. It just really depends on the situation. Much of the work can be perceived and operate in different useful ways. I’m mindful of that when I create stuff. It’s not always a goal, but it’s important to me.
For more information about the artist and to view his work, go to his website at: http://neilrivas.com/home.html.
For more information about ICE DISH:
ICE DISH will be at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco on October 19th for Kearny Street’s APAture ’13: Comix & Zines Expo, from 11am-5pm. For more information: http://i52611.wix.com/kearnystreet#!apature/c1qdh
The Grand Opening for the ICE DISH San Francisco Field Office will be on November 16th, from 7-10pm, at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco.
The public is also invited to visit during Galería’s regular hours to view the ICE DISH facility. For information about their hours, please visit: www.galeríadelaraza.org. For personal tours of the San Francisco Field Office, please contact Director Tanner White to make an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org. The tours are led by ICE DISH Agents during ICE DISH Office Hours on Saturdays and are donated-based, with the public having the option of using either U.S. currency or relevant material for ICE DISH Intelligence (i.e. comic books), for their contributions.