Vladimir Mejia has been a busy member of the Austin arts scene for nearly a decade. With Co-Lab Projects, he established his post as director of social media and #bitres curator, a month-long artist residency on Co-Lab’s Instagram that received a nod from Artnet News.
Concurrently, Mejia has developed his artistic voice, experimenting with the limitations and freedoms of digital space. Mejia recently opened a solo show BRIM, at the micro-gallery Black Mountain Project, a personal exhibition touching on issues of depression and self-identity.
Mejia generously exchanged a digital conversation with me over the course of a week, in which we touched on his influences and references, on how he makes artistic decisions, and what the future will bring.
Leslie Moody Castro: How do you traverse mediums so easily and how do these decisions happen?
Vladimir Mejia: In my process I usually start by figuring out what it is I want to say. Once I have that done I’ll kick around the idea in my head for an undetermined amount of time. Sometimes for days and occasionally for years. Throughout that process I’ll consider different mediums and approaches. I like the challenge because you can never get too comfortable. Portraying something like police brutality in the Texas Biennial via tmonitors set on the ground was reflective of the choice people make to be aware or oblivious to the truth. I use photography to portray more autobiographical content and while I don’t do much traditional printmaking now a days I have integrated parts of that practice with my digital one.
LMC: What was the evolution of moving from traditional printmaking into the digital realm? How did these two languages become synonymous with you, if in fact they are?
VM: After graduating from University of Texas I wasn’t able to afford a studio or access to a screenprinting shop so my practice had to become more digital. What I took from printmaking was the process of layering transparent colors, halftone patterns, collaging and hand-reduction techniques. Now a days a lot of printmakers use computers to generate the layers for their screens. It got to a point before I graduated that the process of screen printing became more of hindrance to achieving the results I wanted. So while I continued composing with screen printing in mind I started giving myself permission to render the final product through alternative mediums. My compositions now are a mixture of digital and hand drawn elements like the transparency pieces in “BRIM.”
LMC: When do you know that a performance should be a performance rather than a video?
VM: For me video work is about capturing a moment and performance art is about being in the moment. When I do performance art I’m very aware of the audience and if something gets a reaction I will lean into it. I plan out the basic beats and improvise everything in between like a stand-up comedian would. My approach is also influenced by the idea of music albums. think one of the things that musicians can do is change there sound overtime and evolve. So as I’ve grown older and changed so has my art. It can be scary at times to not know exactly where you’re going in your practice but it is also liberating.
LMC: Talk more about how music albums influence you.
VM: What I love about music is the fine line it walks between entertainment and sincerity. The first songs I can vividly remember hearing on the radio were by The Fugees and Abba. An unlikely pairing but one that probably explains my desire to jump between low brow and high brow art making. Sometimes I want to make people laugh and sometimes I want them to cry. Also good music isn’t defined by technical mastery but by its ability to connect with the audience. I’m more interested in growing my skills in nuance as opposed to technique. No one wants to listen to a 20 minute guitar solo, most of the time.
LMC: I haven’t been lucky enough to catch one of your performances. Can you give me an example of how you are aware of audience during a performance?
VM: “Untitled (Handie)” is a pretty good example. It lives as a video now but began as a live performance. The video is a lot more coordinated but when I would perform it to an audience it varied depending on the crowds reactions. If the crowd laughed at a certain facial expression I made I would play that up more or if loading the brush made people squeamish I’d do it louder and faster. Every audience is different so I find giving yourself room to respond by not following a tight script can lead to a more satisfying experience for both performer and the viewer.
LMC: Digital media platforms have been an integral part of your practice for a while (Instagram, Wallpaper Wednesday for example). Tell me a little bit about the process of deciding to use social media and/or digital platforms as a medium? How has it evolved even further since you started?
VM: Back in 2011, when I was at UT, me and my good friend/artist Peter Shugart started talking about creating a website gallery that would become Clarkson Gallery. We really didn’t know what we were doing code wise but it was exciting. We would invite an artist to participate, they would send us a folder of images/video/gifs, we would curate the layout on the website and when the show was over document them with video screen captures. Working on those shows really opened my eyes to the potential of working in a digital medium. I think the beauty of digital art is how disseminable it is if you have access to an internet enabled device. People that can not afford to go to a museum, live too far, are disinterested or don’t have the time can hop on Instagram or Ubuweb and give it a shot.
In 2014 I started the Wallpaper Wednesday series because I wanted to use the lock screen on a smartphone as a space and it allowed me to gift art in a way that didn’t cause me a large financial loss in production cost. A lot of the techniques I’ve come up with in the process of making Wallpaper Wednesdays over the years have gone on to heavily influence the work I’ve made for physical exhibitions. I started putting together hand drawn elements with digital elements in photoshop by applying screen print layering techniques to the digital process and overtime my skills and ideas have grown.
LMC: I like this idea of gifting something. Why was gifting important enough to commit to Wallpaper Wednesday?
VM: I really like the use of mixtapes in hip-hop culture. It’s a way to give away music that a lot of the times can’t be profited from because they use uncleared samples in the lead up to a studio album that is purchasable. As an artist I have to make a living art handling and selling work from time to time. I want my work to be accessible but I can’t afford to gift a sculpture or expensive print to everyone that views a show. What I can do with Wallpaper Wednesday is create a piece that can be copied digitally without limit or monetary loss on material. Like a mixtape it’s also a way to keep an artistic presence even when I’m not showing in a physical space.
LMC: It’s interesting that you talk about the lock screen on a smartphone as a “space.” Tell me a little bit about the thought process of creating images meant to live in spaces that aren’t necessarily yours or ones that you can control, like a white cube, for example.
VM: As digital art became more ingrained in my practice I started experimenting with ways to produce work that was evocative of how I would see it on a computer screen in process. After some trial and error with more traditional printing techniques I realized I was overthinking it and that the ideal place to show some of that work was directly on a phone screen.
I’ve worked with Co-Lab Projects for almost a decade now and one of the most important things I’ve learned in that time is the importance of considering space. Whether it’s a white cube, an apartment, warehouse, wallet (Museum of Pocket Art) or iPhone. Because of the prevalence of smartphones, the lock screen is one of the most regularly viewed spaces on a daily basis. It is where you get your notifications, check the time, access an application. Your friends may catch a glimpse of it sometime. Once I post a Wallpaper Wednesday it can take on a life of its own on a friend or strangers device and not be tied down to any specific place and time. A smartphone can be one of the most accessible galleries with the proper consideration.
LMC: You bridge a lot of gaps in terms of medium, contexts, politics, just to name a few. Tell me about walking those lines of “in betweenness.”
VM: My favorite type of work tends to be layered. I enjoy things that can reveal more meaning over time. While my art is very purposeful I try to leave things open enough that the viewer has an opportunity to engage. One of the reasons comedy is a big influence on my approach to making is that the best comedy walks a fine line between pointing out a flaw in our society or ourselves while addressing difficult subject matter like racism, sexism, homophobia and classism. As a first-generation American a lot of my initial exposure to English and American culture came through artistic mediums like books, television and music but surprisingly not a lot of visual arts. Because of that it’s important for me to bridge as many gaps as I can in a piece so that my work is accessible to artists but also a kid like me that would be intimidated by contemporary art.
LMC: Why is access so important to you? How does this continually play into your practice?
VM: As a first-generation American access is very important to me. My mom came to the states during the Civil War in El Salvador. She didn’t have the best access to higher education, the arts or job opportunities. I grew up poor but because of my mom we always scraped by. I am very grateful for her sacrifices, love and encouragement. Without it I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow up in this country and pursue the arts. I would also be nothing without a public education, libraries or welfare. In theory art is meant to be for the people but in practice art can be very intimidating and inaccessible especially if you’re a minority or from a lower socioeconomic level. My practice is a lot about imparting an experience to a wide audience and connecting on deeper level with people who have or are growing up like I did.
LMC: You had a show up at Black Mountain Project in Austin. Can you give me a short written “walk through” of the exhibition?
VM: “Brim” was my second solo exhibition. It was a much more personal show that touched on things like self-identity, depression, desire and escapism. I made large transparency pieces for half of the space which were more autobiographical and showed them along side drawings, polaroids and instructional work. The instructional pieces were probably my favorite because they felt like a natural progression of my performance practice. I’m a big fan of Yoko Ono’s text so I borrowed from her formatting and created two pieces “Tune Out” and “Penthos on Wire.” “Tune Out” allowed the viewer to mimic a picture of me by covering their eyes with a beanie and shuffle through an iPod playlist made up of songs and personal recordings. “Penthos on Wire” allowed the viewer to give up a pair of shoes to one of three wires suspended above the space. The act could be as earnest or inconsequential as the participant wanted it to be.
LMC: What have you got coming up that you’re excited about?
VM: Currently me and my friend Peter are planning a road trip for our collective Rossie dustin to make “the largest drawing in Texas History.” We plan on traveling a sound piece we started developing back in 2013 called “Punk Ass Kids” throughout the state while carving our collective’s initials into the land. Maybe one more solo show before the end of the year and I’m curating an exhibition by Adrian Armstrong at the Co-Lab Project’s Springdale space in August!