Andie Flores is a visual and performance artist, writer and comedian currently in her second year as a doctoral student in the Mexican American Latinx Studies Program at University of Texas in Austin. She uses humor to explore narratives about surveillance and the brown femme body. Her solo show at Presa House in San Antonio is my first experience with her work. I was drawn to her use of alter egos to explore the current cultural phenomenon of isolation and online identities.
Colette Copeland: Please introduce me to your various alter egos in the Presa House exhibition. There’s Cheer Up Charlie — the devil in red — and the sexy green alien who loves to take selfies, and the clownish and slightly tragic character in the Romeo and Juliet video, and also the nun in the gallery entryway. In my work, I invent/adopt alter egos as a way to try on different personnas and experience life through a lens other than my own. It’s a strategy to shed gender conformity and enculturation to a certain extent. What do your alter egos symbolize? What do they teach you about yourself and/or the world?
Andie Flores: In the Cheer Up Charlie video that plays in that almost Advent-purple covered hallway, the devil in red glistens and beckons you to her, in the middle of an empty strip mall parking lot, if she’s even really there at all. The song ‘Cheer Up, Charlie’ is from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Diana Sowle, who sings it in the film, does a really haunting job of framing Charlie as a boy who could use some optimism but also establishes that she’s going to let him find it on his own.
I shot the video and took its corresponding photograph in a parking lot I often walk to from my house. I like taking my dog and dancing and skipping around in that empty space early in the mornings while I’m listening to music, which sometimes creates an element of spectacle among cars speeding through the lot — almost as much as my taking and making the art itself. So much of what makes site-specific art and performance fun for me is introducing perplexing figures into the daily lexicon of passerby. It’s embarrassing and scary sometimes and I love it. I think I probably imagined the devil here as a siren of sorts, like I imagine the people who drive by very slowly when they see me making this kind of thing might see me. She’s offering comfort, maybe a way out, but will she hurt me or help me?
I wanted the green selfie alien to feel like you were sort of looking in a mirror, like it could be your reflection, except it’s an endless loop: this picking at and primping and posturing of self that feels inescapable as a result of a brain that’s oriented toward online presentation. It’s kind of like: see how the alien also hates herself, see how she can’t help but find room for improvement on her body, see how she falls victim to the same beauty standards that trap us, too. It’s a bit of a sad idea, but also one that’s meant to fall apart over and over again. You can also see that it’s me wearing a costume, you can see that the construction of that costume is a bit rough — I’m letting you see me fail and fail and fail as she does, as you do.
The clowny nun at the doorbell just feels so over-eager. She’s so excited to be in your space with no real regard for how you might feel about it. It’s too late, she’s already here. I was raised Catholic and am not religious anymore so there’s that, but mostly I just wanted to experiment with my parent’s strange surveillance phone app that alerts them to and then records any movement on their porch.
In terms of the Romeo and Juliet videos, I’m sort of obsessed with that older video of me as a very young child in my great-grandparents’ house being first invited to, then almost begged to perform. The expectancy is thick. A lot of this show is built around the idea that we are in large part who we’ve always been, so for me this is an early point on a map of my audience-centered personality. Opposite of that projection, there’s a sort of video response made by this more recent version of myself that plays on what I thought was my grandfather’s television that had been collecting dust, but really it belonged to my great-grandfather in that same house that the original video was shot in. It’s been sitting in my grandma’s dining room for years now before we moved it into the gallery and brought it back to life, but my sister and I have vivid memories of walking into my great-grandparents’ house and my great-grandfather not being able to hear us enter because this TV was blasting so loudly from his room. It is at least slightly tragic and cyclical, but I see it as something like a/my genesis and the/my acceptance of the role I was “born to play.”
Much like in your work, I think living in these characters gives me a freedom to explore what it feels like to embrace emotion and let it do what it needs to — through sadness or confusion or strange sexiness or filth or isolation.
CC: I’m interested in the notion of surveillance as it pertains to family documentation. We tend to think about surveillance as a big brother government entity, omnipresent in our lives. How has the family archive influenced your practice as a performer and what is your relationship with surveillance, or the act of being watched?
AF: In the room [at Presa House] with the three TVs mounted from the ceiling, there’s two eyes (independent of each other and also somewhat cohesive) and a mouth, all silent, moving on their own and looking about the room. If you watch one of the eyes long enough, a clip of my great-grandmother holding me not even a week after I was born appears and then quickly disappears. She says, “Once she opens her eyes you’re going to wish she closed them.” The monitors are set up to almost feel like a grouping of security cameras looking on from somewhere high up. My great-grandmother was just trying to talk about how my parents would come to value my sleeping hours as a baby, but the statement also felt viscerally connected to the way I was raised.
My parents were loving but strict, and I was the oldest and I was a girl. There were lots of layers to how I was watched and monitored. The sheer amount of video footage I have from my family throughout the last 30 years, especially in those early years, work as surveillance. We were being watched for monumental moments — set up for them, even. When I go into the family archive, it’s future me surveilling the past, looking for things we all might have missed, trying to mine out meaning, watching how I was surveilled. As a racialized body out in the world now, I’m aware of how my body moves and reads in certain spaces, especially somewhere like Austin, where I live. I’m aware of the framework of how we present through our online “identities” and how it’s designed to serve capitalism and algorithms. I just want to play in the in-between of those spaces, if it’s possible.
CC: The crappy aesthetic of Hi8 camcorders. My first video prof in grad school in the late ’90s had us shoot in Hi8 and edit using analog. I was initially very frustrated and remember being so excited to finally work in digital, but found I missed the Hi8 aesthetic.
In the video in the screening room at Presa House, it appears that you altered not only the footage, but further degraded the visuals. Tell us about your decision to shoot in Hi8 versus digital and how the formal video aesthetic and the glitch informs the conceptual framing of your work.
AF: I shoot in Hi8 and after I film, I record the playback from the tiny camcorder screen on my iPhone, so there’s this double layer of slight distortion. It allows me to capture glitches in the fast-forwarding and rewinding that can add to the story. And as far as glitches go, the entirety of my process is sort of like looking for my own behavioral glitches or secrets or disruptions. For this show, I wanted things to feel almost seamless in terms of time, and for the content or story to be more important than angles or lighting or quality. Sort of like the many hours of slow-moving video footage I’ve watched of me and my siblings opening present after present at big birthday parties, I wanted to set everything up with a “wait and see” anticipation.
I wanted the screening room at the back of the gallery to feel like watching late-night TV with my little sister after my parents went to sleep. We weren’t allowed to be up watching things like Cheaters or Elimidate or Married with Children reruns, and we knew one of our parents would eventually get up and tell us to go to sleep, but we were hungry for this weird human behavior we saw on the screen that was kept away from us for whatever reason. In the screening room video (I don’t have a title yet BTW) I show snippets of Elimidate and Cheaters, but also footage from a found collection of old tapes my grandparents had on hand for when they’d babysit us or that my parents had asked them to record (San Antonio Living, Oprah, Catholic TV), videos of my siblings and I doing really cringey things for our imaginary camera audience (me playing guitar when no one was home for what feels like an agonizing amount of time; filming my mirror reflection as I apply lip gloss out of boredom; my sister and brother pretending they’re on their own episode of MTV Cribs), and even a few old clips of my grandmother asking questions about the video camera as tool. The combination is strange and a little embarrassing and also strangely inviting, I think.
CC: What role does humor play in your work?
AF: Humor is essential to my practice; it’s probably the tightest unifying force between my writing, my stage performance, my self-portraits, and my general point of view. If you know the “rules” of humor or whatever and have a/your own formula for making people laugh, you also know how to redirect their attention however you’d like or use humor to distort messages and meaning. I wanted to play with that a bit in this show. Being funny has always been hugely important in my family relationships, but since video strips away some of the control of a comedian’s format with their audience, especially in art spaces, I don’t think folks know exactly what to laugh at, per say, or if they’re even supposed to, but like a new television program, it’s nice to just watch and see what happens.
CC: You are a second-year doctoral student in the Mexican American Latinx Studies program at University of Texas in Austin. How have your studies and research shifted or changed your artistic practice?
AF: In 2018, I was at the Brooklyn Museum visiting the Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 exhibit. I was trying to decide whether or not I was going to move back to New York where all my friends were, or commit to five more years in Austin as a graduate student after being out of college for so many years. I was a bit afraid of being in one place too long. There was a fair amount of video art in the show and I sort of kept wondering how we (“we” as “a society” or really “they” as in curators of this work) decide which pieces get preserved as representative of a culture or cultures. I kept hoping there was an answer beyond “it’s who you know” (there’s not, really) but I was so energized by the experience anyway that I decided to spend school working through the frustration being an art-maker brings. My program isn’t a studio arts one — it’s a lot of reading and a ton of writing and a lot of talking and thinking, and through all of that I’ve been able to clarify what I’d like to explore as an artist and the pace at which I’d like to challenge myself to experiment. I’ve been sort of able to justify my hunger for art-making and the meaning I can’t help but to embed in all my play. So if anything, I’m trying to use my role as a graduate student to close the gap between the work I’m reading about and people reading about some of my work, too.
CC: The press release ends with a powerful and provocative quote by you. “Theorists like José Estaban Muñoz situate the space between and inside queerness and brownness as a sort of poetic structure of being and I see the exploration and creation of “Home movies” of myself a s a brown queer woman as more valuable data collection that self-masturbatory narcissistic nostalgia.” Tell us what you mean about home movies as data collection versus masturbatory nostalgia.
AF: I think a lot of people see watching old tapes of yourself as a child as definitely cute at first and then positively narcissistic after a while. I have spent years combing through my family’s old video tapes, waiting with bated breath while I filmed the tiny screen of the Sony Hi8 or the VHS playing off the TV from my phone, and the more hours I put into watching the footage, the more my watching turned into analysis. It’s not that I’m fixated on how cute I was as a child, it’s that I’m noticing multiple instances of personality tensions that inform how I move in the world today, and I’m able to notice all of that because I’m still struggling with the development or manifestations of those personality traits or habits, etc., today. I’m listening very closely to the ways my family talked to each other, the way they talked to me, the hopeful ways they narrated my world, and I’m paying attention to the moments they curated as most important “to capture” on camera.
José Estaban Muñoz, who I referenced in the press release, wrote a lot about the performance / feeling of brownness as a sense of here and now and queerness as a “not-yet-here”-ness. I view my approach to my family’s “Home movies” — even a quick second thought about the phrasing changes our perception of what our families might have been trying to do with their storytelling and historian efforts — as a search for my own anchor points. I’m collecting data on myself that’s always been there so that I might make peace with how I’ve been shaped, and also choose to be the future version of myself that’s always existed.
Andie Flores at Presa House, San Antonio, through Jan. 29, 2021.