Oct 23, 2017

The Space that Isn’t Made: An Interview with Michelle Angela Ortiz

by: Laura Kochman

In a glass-walled ticketing office outside the Barnes Foundation on 20th Street, a group of strangers gathers to turn coffee filters, tape, and wire into paper flowers. Artist Patricia Barrera shows me how to twist the paper so that it resembles a blossom, and I write a message in a circle around the outside edge: “YOU BELONG / YOU BELONG.” These flowers will be part of a creative action for artist Michelle Angela Ortiz’s Monument Lab project, Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking). Though Philadelphia is a sanctuary city, Berks Family Residential Center (known familiarly as Berks Detention Center) is just a short drive away, and Ortiz’s project honors the mothers and families previously or currently detained there.


What interests you about Monument Lab?

It’s the questioning of public space, and who we decide to honor—how does it represent the people that are there, were there, and are now interacting in that space? A lot of the monuments we have in our city are a reflection of a history that, at times, I don’t feel connected to…how is it that we’re honoring or elevating our own monuments, our own heroes? As we tear down other monuments, it’s important that we think about not just the physical symbols that they represent, but that we also tear down those systems that continue to oppress black and brown communities. Where are the other spaces in which we can create monuments to individuals that really represent what this nation is supposed to be, which is freedom and liberty and dignity and living a life of happiness? Just asking these questions is interesting. So often, you see monuments just pop up, and no one’s really asking. This project has been an opportunity for people to be aware of their spaces, and aware of the history that exists in their communities.

Visitors at work on paper flowers for Michelle Angela Ortiz's Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking).

So often we think of monuments as permanent structures, but your project is made out of light, movement, sound, paper, and action—all things that are very temporary. Can you talk about those artistic choices?

We had to deal with the reality of finding a physical space in the heart of Center City, and figuring out how is this going to be seen in this space? The idea of the projected animation was always present, but it was a question of finding the right location. We were able to get support from city government to really have the space open for us at the north gates, and that is something I really appreciate, especially when in most cities, that wouldn’t happen because of the story that we’re telling and who we’re representing. In the archway at the gate, you have the image of Benjamin Franklin, and then you also have a prayer to the city in that little passageway. It’s about defending children and the future of our city, so I felt like it was the perfect space. I wanted people to think about—it is fragile, it is fleeting—this idea of the story being captured at the moment that it’s being told, but also appreciating that moment because that space isn’t always made. And specifically, it’s not always made for the undocumented mothers who have been detained.

There’s power in the image, especially on those gates: the symbolism of doors opening and closing, the symbolism of the actual ironwork and its connection to incarceration and detention—it’s a really beautiful backdrop for how the story could be told, and it relates in context to the other histories that are being presented there. When we landed there, that really helped form and support the stories of the mothers. We went back and forth, but we wanted to question the idea of what a monument is. Can a monument be a projection? And what does that mean, and in what space? So it’s pushing the boundaries on all of those definitions, and what we’re used to seeing, and that’s really exciting.

We came up with the flowers because when I was visiting the mothers at Berks, I was not allowed to leave them with any art supplies. I’d ask them questions like, What was the moment when you felt the most free? What gives you strength and resilience? I was only able to leave the flower materials with them, and they created 10–15 flowers with messages of freedom and hope, which will be joined with the flowers that we’ve been making here at the Barnes and other sites. The flowers represent that moment when they didn’t have to think about the present, because at that time they didn’t know if they were going to be deported.

Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden (left) and artist Michelle Angela Ortiz (far right) make paper flowers at the Barnes Foundation. Photo by Steve Weinik.

What’s your favorite monument?

My grandfather’s house in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, it no longer is there. I’ve had thoughts of reconstructing it, recreating it. The symbol of this house, which was just a few planks of wood, a very humble home, was very present in my mind when I first purchased my own house. I thought of my grandfather in that moment, and my maternal grandmother, who struggled a lot in trying to have a home with her children, and my mom speaking about her childhood, moving from one place to another, not having that stability. It puts things into perspective, how grateful I am just to have four walls and a warm bed, and a place to call home. Those four walls and that space is a monument to me, now existing only in our memory.

Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) projection still. Photo by Steve Weinik.

What does this project mean to you?

Every project I do informs what my next step is, and two of the families that were highlighted through Familias Separadas in Open Source were formerly detained at Berks. That was my first step in having awareness, more than three years ago. That led me to the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which is a collection of both local and national organizations fighting against detention. I have learned more about the Berks family prison through the Coalition, who helped me connect directly to the mothers inside.

My experiences as a child of immigrants and first generation Philadelphian has influenced my life and artistic practice. Stories are powerful, and the people that are able to tell the stories, and in which way, have a lot of power. As an artist who works within communities, I’m very conscious of where it is that I stand and know that my perspective as an ally is not the same as someone that is directly affected by the issue I am exploring in the work.

I understand that I have the power and privilege to go in and out of the Center where the mothers were detained, a privilege that is really a human right of freedom that they and their children have been denied. I am not undocumented, I haven’t crossed borders, I have never been detained… but I am a mother, I have created work with communities across borders, and I am a product of immigrants that left their home countries to provide a better life for their family. So, in knowing this, in my practice I ask myself how do I begin to shift this power structure and open the space for the mothers to share their experiences? And how do I utilize my privilege, skills, and resources as a way of providing opportunities to share their stories, especially in spaces where they are not represented?

In Seguimos Caminando, you hear one of the mothers’ voices as she reads her story that she wrote. The story becomes the foundation of the animation, but you hear her voice. When I come to this work, it’s not just finding the connections of our humanity, but it’s understanding how I can utilize the creative process to amplify and elevate other voices, through the platform of public space, in the most authentic way that I can.

Last updated: Oct 23, 2017

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