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chapter 9 Dead Conversations on Art and Politics josé guadalupe posada interviews john jota leaños John Jota Leaños (California College of the Arts) Let the atrocious images haunt us. susan sontag The conversation from which this article arose takes place between nineteenth-century Mexican artist and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada (1851–1913) and twenty-first-century new media artist John Jota Leaños. The circumstances of this exchange are unusual at best: it occurred somewhere along the road to Mictlan1 on the southern border of the ancient Mexican indigenous practice of the Días de los Muertos, or Days of the Dead. This cross-hemispheric exchange not only focuses on the death of art, politics, and irony in the twenty-first century, it also reflects on the dearth of such exchanges, as well as on the challenges of performing critical art within the borders of empire. I john jota leaños: Bienvenidos, Señor Posada. It is with much respect, awe, and appreciation that I invite you back to reflect on political art practice in the age of American empire. josé guadalupe posada: No vengo por consentimiento sino porque me lo consiento vengo (I return not because you allow me, but I return because I can). What’s gone on since I’ve been gone? T4989.indb 187 T4989.indb 187 2/27/09 6:57:40 AM 2/27/09 6:57:40 AM 188 john jota leaños jjl: I would like to fill you in on the historic torture scandal that has arisen out of the American occupation of Iraq. Approximately fifty images of American torture, sexual abuse, and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison were released to the public in 2004 and were distributed globally by the media. The images released to the public are only a fraction of the dozens of photographs and hours of video that exist documenting these abuses. The U.S. Senate viewed most of this material behind closed doors, but deemed them “unviewable ” and forbade their release to the larger public.2 There is no telling when and if these images will ever become available, but evidence shows that these “captured” images are only a shadow of the abuses, including rape, murder, torture, and humiliation, that took place at Abu Ghraib and at other detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and globally.3 For the rest of the world, these images of Abu Ghraib abuses have become the face of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. The U.S. corporate media have already forgotten about them, having milked the images for all the hype and sensationalism possible but stopping short of demanding public access to the other images or doing thorough documentation and investigation of the situation and the larger implications they have for U.S. imperialism, the prisonindustrial complex, ethics in a democracy, and so on. As these images are placed in the annals of atrocious war photography, they are also inserted into the photo album of the American Empire. American citizens and artists are faced with a deep and complex matrix of meaning that these images bring to the surface. jgp: Seems pretty serious, amigo! (Laughs) What are you doing about it? jjl: My art practice resides in the struggle of the symbolic arena. I engage in social critique from within the margins of institutional power, challenging master narratives, employing traditional and contemporary art tactics to create platforms from which to speak, draw connections, and formulate meaning by “any media necessary.”4 The Abu Ghraib T4989.indb 188 T4989.indb 188 2/27/09 6:57:40 AM 2/27/09 6:57:40 AM 189 torture scandal is the most significant U.S. war abuse scandal since My Lai, Vietnam. As you can imagine, artists and social critics have generated a large body of work with the release of the torture photographs. Many artists, including myself, have dedicated time to replicating, reproducing, recontextualizing , and aestheticizing these images. I believe that reproducing these images and saturating the popular consciousness with them (in an advertising sense) may help alleviate or at least challenge the widespread amnesia and the endemic optimism of the many Americans who choose not to take responsibility for or confront the horrors of life, war, and death. Artists working with these images inevitably accept a date with the horrific and shameful. The photographs are a glimpse into the acts of exploitation and dehumanization of war, in general and...


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