The Portuguese artist Ricardo Gouveia, or Rigo 23, might be best known for his series of larger-than-life, one-way-sign-inspired murals, painted on buildings across San Francisco, where the artist has lived since the 1980s. For the better part of the last decade, however, Rigo 23 has produced a series of projects with underserved and underrepresented communities. The latest of these, Programa Espacial Autónomo InterGalactico (Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program), has just docked at REDCAT, CalArt’s theater and gallery space in downtown Los Angeles.
The culmination of more than three years of coordination and labor by Rigo 23 and artisans from Chiapas, Mexico, as well as members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), Programa Espacial represents a convergence of multiple worlds.1 When Rigo 23 met with the members of the Good Government Junta of Morelia, Chiapas, to propose a collaborative art project between himself and artists from the region, he asked, “What would happen if they got an invitation to attend an intergalactic meeting somewhere other than the Milky Way; how would they travel?”2 The junta members accepted this proposal but made it clear that the project was not a priority and would only be accomplished if he won the support of a local artist.
Because Programa Espacial is a collaborative project between an artist and various indigenous communities, and because those communities are under the jurisdiction of the EZLN, the exhibit brings up questions of commodification and appropriation, but these questions seem to have been of lesser interest to Rigo 23 than the question of positionality. The spiraling path a viewer takes through the exhibit evokes (within the limits of California’s fire code) the curve of a snail’s shell, creating interplay between a viewer’s sense of being sympathetically “inside” the EZLN looking out, or an outsider looking in.3
Upon entering the gallery, visitors find themselves at the first of many thresholds, facing a long, wooden fence covered by a mural depicting three masked Zapatista figures: one male, one female, and one child. The figures stride across the Earth, machetes in one hand and torches in the other. They occupy the center of the composition, next to a list of EZLN demands. To each side of this trio extends the galaxy, full of stars and other celestial bodies like the moon and the sun, all wearing their own black balaclavas, or pasamontañas.4
On either side of the mural are openings. The opening on the right leads to the back of the gallery space, to a room full of artifacts accumulated by Rigo 23 during his stay in Chiapas. These include colorful, acrylic paintings of Zapatista figures accompanied by phrases like “Mas de 500 años en resistencia !ya basta¡” and “Nunca mas la humillacion y el desprecio,” dark woven fabrics embroidered with constellations, and individually acquired fabric squares sewn into quilts, or telas.5 Much of the imagery and iconography in these objects—masked Zapatistas holding machetes, torches, and even video cameras, often fighting a dragon that represents organizations like the WTO and NAFTA, surrounded by depictions of nature, as well as transmission satellites—is taken up throughout the rest of the exhibit.
The other entrance opens to a long, narrow hallway, the sides of which have been cobbled together out of brightly painted wood planks and doors, giving the appearance of an alleyway in Chiapas. This interplay between inside and outside continues along the wall to the right, which is punctured by rectangular peepholes, their shape echoing the eyeholes of a pasamontaña, that look into the center of the exhibit. To peer through them is to effectively see through the eyes of the EZLN. Other peepholes along the way look onto videos that show the artisans who worked on the project, as well as footage of an EZLN protest in San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital of Chiapas.
At the exhibit’s center hangs a model of a large, wooden spaceship, shaped like an ear of corn, full of actual soil and suspended from the ceiling to give the appearance of flying horizontally through space.6 The husk, or skin of the ship, is made of long, thin strips of wood, and tens of woven baskets meant to represent individual kernels erupt from its back, each carrying a picture of a masked Zapatista. Sculptures of a bandana-wearing moon, a sequined-balaclava-wearing sun, and a transmission satellite that uses video footage of actual Zapatista eyes looking through their masks, all hang at various points in the room and give the impression of a strange, science-fiction movie set.
On the ship’s prow sit three carved, wooden snails with human faces, wearing pasamontañas, and two tiny Zapatista dolls man the helm. Small, rectangular peepholes (of the same shape as those in the passageways) provide glimpses of miniature dioramas inside the ship, including a bedroom, a classroom, and a basketball court. At this point the viewer experiences a shift in position yet again, from being at the exhibit’s center, to peering into yet another interior space from the outside.
Programa Espacial is about thresholds, about drawing attention to those moments when inside meets outside. Such experiences stand as counterparts to the worlds-within-worlds cosmology reflected in the exhibit’s layout and content. Both are crucial tenets of the Zapatista’s worldview, which Rigo 23’s collaborative project articulates in good faith without coming off as opportunistic or exploitative. This fact itself is rare enough to make it worth the visit.