An Interview with Jessica Rodriguez

    While we think of interviews as collections of conversations, it's often the case that that collection of conversations can hide some interesting and less emphasized commonalities.
    In the case of the interviews you find here, we often focus on persons who are already well-known (or notorious). We also tend to think about their work as a series of triumphs or worthy examples rather than the curve of a life's output already in progress, or futures in which there a clearly roadmapped trajectory. In particular, we often focus, too, on narrow sets of tools and approaches. And then there's the fact that notions of place and identity are often present in passing. Since my time talking to Jessica Rodriguez, I've returned to thinking about these ideas often. I caught her in the midst of an interesting set of transitions, and in a mood to talk more about identity and place than filters and image processing. It left me looking forward to seeing how things go for her, but it also got me thinking about who I am, where I'm from, and how those things interact with the line of my works as a process and sequence that marks a future that I only imagined at any given step in time. How did you get here?
    I come from a small city named Uruapan in Michoacán. A target state by the United States and a red flag (good place) for anyone to visit. We are, indeed, surrounded by avocados and drugs - but we are also surrounded by one of the more complex cultures in Mexico; in terms of food, handmade objects, textiles, people and landscapes. I think that experiences shape the way you are. In the past five years I tried to expose myself as much as I could to other cultures and people, trying to learn from their experiences, but at some point I needed to recharge, to come again to the beginning, and then start over again.
    Growing up in a place with a strong tradition of “craft” is an interesting and sort of new idea for me, since I moved a lot as a kid and don’t really think of myself as being “from” anywhere, really. I guess I identify with where I live now in the American midwest, but that’s very different than the kind of rootedness and identity you’re describing. I’m curious as to how the new “craft” you’ve learned with working with new media fits in with that identity. Do you feel like your new tools are from “somewhere else” rather than your locus of identity?
    I also used to think I was “from anywhere,” but that has changed over the years, especially in the past 5 years that I have had the opportunity to live abroad for short periods of time. Octavio Paz has a book that I read back in University, The Labyrinth of Solitude (El Laberinto de la Soledad) in which he writes about Mexico. He also mentions that all those thoughts come from a period of time where he was not living in the country. In my case, I've been living in Uruapan nearly all of my life, with the exception of living elsewhere in Mexico while I was studying and working.
    Referring to your question about the tools. I do think the tools that we use have a context in which they are produced. They are thought of a certain kind of context and language. If we talk about programming languages, they are mainly written in English, and that is - presumably - to make them universal,
    ...or more widely accessible, perhaps?
    I understand that part. But, when your first language is not English, you kind of lose a part of who you are by using another language. It is well known that learning a new language and using it changes your personality in subtle ways. So, I think that I've been trying to explore projects that work with the language in a strong relationship with the tools we use. How can or might we hack the programming language systems to use them also in our own context , our own language, our own personal history, to our memories?
    I’m not talking specifically about Spanish in a general sense, but in a local one. We use the language that we speak in a different way from others - the way that I - as Jessica - use my own language and how I can translate that language into the tools I use….
    So you’re talking about a unit smaller than a “language,” more a dialect, or even a private dialect. How have you approached the problem?
    In this particular case, I've been working along with a programmer and close friend from Colombia to develop CineVivo - a mini language programmed on OpenFrameworks that allows me to program in Spanish, English or even produce my own language.
    And by using my language or my own words I don't think it is just about what words mean but how words sound and how they are written. So, especially in the last year, I've been involved in some projects that allow you to use your own words to control or run videos or sound. CineVivo is an approach to this for visuals, and the other one is Estuary, which works with sound. In these cases, you do have to start from English - because somehow that language has become a lingua franca in a programming context. I am not against this, but I do think that it is important that we have the opportunity as users/programmers to hack into our own understanding of a language, it doesn't matter if it is any kind of Spanish or other.
    I expect, too, that you may have acquired your new craft somewhere else, so I’m wondering if learning them has brought something new to where you think you’re “from,” or whether those experiences have relocated you in some way….
    I don’t know if this is a very philosophical answer, not very concrete in terms of my studies and specific works I’ve done.
    The truth is that I have succeed and I have failed. I have succeed in terms of recognition of my work, and in terms of new things that I have learned. I let myself learn from others, exploring those digital platforms that I will later write about on my research projects. Asking about sound, hearing its developments to later on translate that information into my own practice. But I have also failed in terms of falling into a comfortable stage of production, where I already knew what to do, how to replicate in others pieces what I do, not really exploring with my own practice.
    I’m not sure that I’d really consider what you’re describing as any kind of failure, although I think I understand what you mean. I think we all are in search of what you’re calling a comfortable stage of production, and that what you’re thinking of as failure is merely a report on the current balance of things. Your description makes things sound sort of solitary, at the moment, too. Do you think that you’ll be more likely to find that comfortable stage in a community of persons, or is it entirely personal?
    Well, as a failure I don't mean something negative, I think failures help me grow more as a person because I see them as an opportunity to think about myself and my practice.
    I guess it does feel solitary in that it comes from a personal point of view. I do think that when you belong to a community you are more likely to fall in that comfortable stage where you don't question your practice any more because you have a lot of people doing the same as you and telling you that everything is right. I also think that this affects the kind of person you are. When you belong to a community you kind of get into this role of being the community and forgetting that you are more than a certain kind of thoughts, and that the things that you think are not the only way of doing. That doesn’t mean that I consider being a community as a negative thing - I just think that you have to be very careful of what kind of community you belong to. You can find yourself in a situation where the community follows your artistic ideas but other aspects to their approach to life doesn't match with your own notions of how to be a better person.
    And, in my case for a few years, I was part of a community where I grew up a lot from a professional point of view but I was not becoming a better person - it was that mismatch. After that, I approached another community that behaved the same way. So I think my answer feels lonely because of that. I ask myself if I am capable of belonging to a community or whether I should work alongside them from the outside as someone who agrees with some of the ideas but not to all, and - most importantly - avoiding tagging yourself with a name.
    I have also failed in terms of letting myself fall into the the Art Bubble, because it is a bubble.
    Yeah. I’d tend to say that you’re “in” the art bubble by virtue of declaring that that’s where you want to work (you get into the club by declaring you’re a member), but I’m not you, of course. Do you think that you’re running into problems related to the communities in which you find yourself not being particularly inclusive? Does it feel like the “bubble” has some kind of geographic center, and you’re not there?
    For me, it is impossible to have a community and be inclusive at the same time.
    It is funny because sometimes we think our problems are unique, that nobody feels them. But this is an old problem that will be there forever because we are humans and that is the way we communicate and interact with others. I am reading a book about music in the 20th century, it has an ethnological approach to composers, compositions, and musical movements. It’s curious that in each music/artistic movement that comes, there are people from old and new music approaches that feel they can't be part of the current movement. And then, a few years later, the ones that were new suddenly are popular and the ones that were the hit becomes old and a cycle begins again.
    This still happens in the 21st century where everybody says everything is possible and everything is ok, and we still have the same problems. LiveCoders versus Electroacoustic Musicians, Conceptual Art versus Classical Art, and the other way around. And you notice that it is not a matter of which tools they use. For example, consider the LiveCoders versus Electroacoustic communities. They use almost the same tools. One side is open to other tools - not just programming languages - and the other is more into open source languages. Each group will claim that the others’ music discourse is ambiguous or unimportant, or even that the result is not good in musical terms. I personally think that they are both right - you can find shit in either practice. But I think that the problem in both cases is that sometimes technology development or extramusical matters become more important than sound/visual development, and - for me, this is one of the biggest problems in the history of Art. So it isn't a matter of belonging to either one community (Live Coding or Electroacoustic, in this example) but it is a personal problem - how someone approaches the tools each one uses.
    Someone like Sergio Luque does a great job not belonging to a community, because then he can use practices that belong to Electroacoustic Music, Live Coding, or Classical Music and compose through his own experience and his own memories. We do have collective memories that we can work with when we are working in a collaboration, but I don’t think those collective memories should establish the way you think and produce. So I am more into using any kind of tools available in your own context to develop what you want to do - not the other way around where the tools you use determine the development of your work. And by tools, I also mean an understanding of how a certain kind of approach of knowledge can determine your practice (more in the case of Electroacoustic Music, I think).
    Having had experiences in both communities in Mexico and Latin America, they both occasionally behave like gangsters or salesmen who claim their own products are superior. And they can share the same geographical space with a certain kind of apprehension and distrust - being over polite without any significant communication of what can we learn from the other or what we can rescue from the other.
    I think coming back to Uruapan, having the experiences I have had in the past two years have changed me a lot. I do have to change the way I produce, and the reason for my production. Not just because the art field required me to keep moving, but because I myself am personally in constant motion.
    Yeah - it’s that “inner game” versus the expectations of others. Always. Can you talk a little bit about the expectations you feel the art field had for you? Is it a certain kind of production? A certain place where you’re supposed to work? A certain way you’re supposed to work?
    I think this part comes from my other answers. As you know, I used to work at CMMAS and that is kind of the personification of Electroacoustic Music in Latin America. I was occasionally made to feel uncomfortable because I was also involved with the Live Coding community in Mexico. On the other hand,I also felt uneasy as being part of the Live Coding community because of the tools I use, I can either use Processing or Resolume - as I said, the thing I do determines the tools I use, not the other way. So I did feel a lot of pressure, more in the sense of using certain kinds of tools in the Live Coding community. And in the other community to be a person I didn't want to be, to spend time around persons I wasn’t personally comfortable around. So, at the end, for the moment, I just keep the good parts, or the parts I agree with each community.
    And I feel almost a little silly to get so specific at this point in the conversation, but maybe this is a good place to ask about your current “toolbox” a little bit - what are you using to do your own work at the moment, and how did you come to start using it? Do you think that your interactions with your tools have driven your creative process, or maybe nudged it into different directions?
    Well, I've been talking a lot about that but I will tell you more about how the things I do have changed over the years.
    I have a project called Andamio (scaffold). Through Andamio, I worked along with my dad and other friends in projects for performances, workshops, and research. And we do different things - Visual Music, Electronic Literature, Expanded Literature, Experimental Video, and Electroacoustic Music, among other things.

    Laid by his side

    Something that has been very constant in Andamio is the collaboration with my dad, with him, we work with text. And this comes from a personal experience where he used to read to me when I was a child. I remember his voice, I really like his tone and the way he reads. He is a writer himself. So, the part of using text for performances and also for workshops comes from the idea of sharing those memories with others. Our set is usually my dad reading, someone on the audio with more electroacoustic sounds or sound art, and live video. I used to work with Resolume and Max/MSP. Producing audio/video material by recording it, downloading it, and editing those file in other programs. For the video part, Resolute was a quick option, mostly because I like to work with video clips and they run pretty well on any computer.
    For a long time, my friends from the Live Coding scene wanted me to change to another platform. As you may know, Max/MSP is not an option for them because it is a paid software, which at that time was very expensive to get in Latin America (I kind of agree with them on this), so it was not for everybody. I do like Max - Jitter in particular -because it runs the video files very well without a lot of RAM. I considered the idea of using Processing, but the video files run very slowly with commercial computers. Languages and programs like Fluxus and others with the same type of graphics were not an option because I don't usually work with vectors in those projects. So I thought Resolume was a good option, and I continued using it even though I was being software shamed (a term I like to use) in Live Coding sessions.
    Two years ago, I started collaborating with a friend on a piece for live video, live electronics, and cello. He developed a system in Supercollider where the system interacts with the cellist, the systems use audio clips from the cellist and decide the output, collaborating with her in real time. The video part was on Resolume but it had the downside that I had to be in each performance. In addition, my friend wanted to place the whole system on a Raspberry Pi. So this was the first time that I started to consider other tools so we could do the visual part by itself and place it in a low-capacity computer. By this time - a little over a year ago - I met a Colombian programmer that became my friend and helped me translate my visual ideas into code using OpenFrameworks. I think OpenFrameworks is a good option if you are using video clips.


    And then, the other part was what I was talking about at the beginning, with my friend, Esteban Betancur - we started developing CineVivo. He is the programmer and I am the one telling him what to add. He has a lot of experience collaborating with visual artists in these kinds of projects. He is a musician himself, he works mainly with ChucK, and he understands the artistic part very well the. So we are still developing that project, and we have been changing it according to the necessities that arise in a personal/professional level and in workshops that we both have been teaching on how to use CineVivo. I still use other programs, but I especially like CineVivo because right now I am working more with Electronic Literature and it allows me to write text and run it. Also, as I said, it allows me to name my commands so a literary text could have a triple function: a visual one, a way to communicate with others, and a way to run something that means something for the computer as well having another visual output (a video clip).
    I’m wondering if you’d be comfortable talking about where you think your work “comes from” a little bit more….
    I think everything that I do comes from my experiences. I use video clips for visuals because I connect with them. Every project I do I use materials that mean something to me, even if they are just textures. I am also part of a project named RGGTRN - we do different things, but one of the performances that we have is a Live Coding session. I like that project because the audio mixes cumbia, salsa (more Latin American styles) with techno or electronic music. I can identify with that very easily because during my childhood those were some of the styles of music I used to hear at parties.

    RGGTRN @ the Algorave 5th birthday

    So those are part of my identity - especially with music, I feel a connection with a wide range of styles. The same is true of the videos. In the visual part (in that set) I used videos that are part of the meme culture that also involves me. I used a lot of meme videos from a series “A Shooting Starts” with a famous Mexican artist named Pedrito Sola. He has worked on the air for more than 20 years on a program where they talk about famous people. That program is still on - it was very famous when I was a child. So those images are part or a collective Mexican imagination for me. I also use the names of the commands (because I use CineVivo) with words in Spanish and English. Because English and the culture from United States is also part of who we are as Mexicans nowadays. We come from a mixture, not just a genetic mixture, but a cultural one. So my work comes from my own memories, the personal ones and the collective ones with which I collide.
    What I produced comes from my own body (my memory) and the collision with the bodies (memories) of others. I am myself the result of the collision of individual and collective memories - not just the one that I've searched for, but the ones that came fearlessly toward me. Without asking, they just came and crashed into me.
    And that is how I got here.
    Where do you think "here" is?
    Difficult question, “here” for me is the “now”. But as I was answering your very first question, “here” for me is an specific event in the future: me starting a PhD in a different country.
    That’s exciting, if a little daunting. Given your description of Urupan, I guess I was wondering how you could start pursuing your “next step” from where you were. Once you decided to continue, how did you go about locating where to go?
    I still don't have an answer for this. It is thrilling to go to another country, but I also think I am scared because I don't want to see my departure as my solution to the daily corruption that we live in in Mexico. To be honest, when I consider the idea of applying elsewhere, it was initially because of the corruption and the problems that we have in Mexico. I love Mexico and I love being Mexican, but I am also sad for the situation here. We have security problems - you don't know if you will be in the wrong place at wrong time. Also, in a cultural and educational sense, everything is rotten. At every level, corruption is rampant and right now I don't think I can be part of it or if I can "'hacerse de la vista gorda” (turn a blind eye).
    But I decided that I couldn’t decide my future just based on this. Because I think other countries also have these problems - maybe in a less common way, but I will face this, too. Also, I think that I needed to apply somewhere I could create a home because it will be difficult to leave my country and everything that comes with it. On the other hand, I was also searching for programs that could connect to what I want to do in the future, doing a more ethnological research that talks about artists’ production but that can also connect with others disciplines. Specifically in terms of genetics - since my research proposal is currently about contrasting miscegenation in terms of genetics with cultural miscegenation. In Mexico, we don’t have these kinds of more open programs.
    So, I was very interested in these Ph.D. programs on Cultural Studies and I decided to apply to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario because one of my best friends lives there. I found their program in Communications, New Media and Cultural Studies fit my needs, and it is Canada - not really far from Mexico, there are many Latin American people studying there, too. The culture is similar to the United States in ways I find familiar, as well - it is a break from my life here, but it is not a total break.
    I would hope that the distance will let me refine my thinking - to systematize more as Octavio Paz did - who I am and where I am and where I want to go in a future that will be reflected in my practice. It is a breaking point in my life where everything has to change, where I will need to re-evaluate myself and what I think. And it comes also at a certain period in my life, my 30th birthday. So for me, it is a riddle of events, works, research, travel, performances, experiences, but also luck that has led me to the “here.”

    • Oct 10 2018 | 2:22 pm
      This isn't interview material exactly, but one very positive side-effect of our conversation was her recommendation of "The Labyrinth of Solitude" as a book worthy of my attention. I have again and again found myself wondering what a Dutch (or, I suppose, an American) version of this book might be. As she commended its reading to me, so I commend it to you.
    • Oct 10 2018 | 4:22 pm
      Rich! Really great reflections. Best of luck to you on your new adventure Jessica.
    • Oct 11 2018 | 2:36 am
      Fantastic interview. Very inspiring and honest.
      Where can I find more of Jessica's work online?