Foreigners Welcomed: Jimena Sarno’s home away from at LACE
My introduction to artist Jimena Sarno’s practice begins two years ago. On July 15th, 2015, I saw a collaborative show hosted by the ACLU that featured Patrisse Cullors and Jimena Sarno. The Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana was set up so that visitors could view Sarno’s homeland (2014 & 2015), a sculptural and sound installation throughout the night, and held a separate space for the performative work of Cullors and Sarno.
The evening began with performances. Sarno played we are all not in this together, a sound piece made of police scanner recordings from the night of November 24th 2014, when Michael Brown’s murderer was not indicted. In particular she highlighted a conversation between a police officer and a female dispatch officer, in which the officer asks about the “suspect-in-question.”
Regarding the sound piece Sarno notes that it sits, “Against the backdrop of a sonic mapping of Ferguson described by dispatches from different parts of the city.” The answer the dispatcher offers the police officer is broken. First, negative is heard and is repeated, then negative, no gun followed with the maddening repetition of, negative, no gun, no weapon. The finale of the archive reveals the entirety of the response provided to the officer: Negative, no gun, no weapon, just black male.
In the piece Sarno labors towards the response heard/recorded/archived: Negative: No gun, No weapon, just black male–highlighting the absurdity and yet their remaining interrogations.
Sarno’s display of police recordings preceded Cullors, who draped herself in a US flag given to her by the US government and discussed the memory of her veteran father. Cullors spoke of the ways in which state violence is not an abstract distance, an abstracted object, but stitched into the fabric of so our lives (as benefactors, to our detriment). In collaboration with artist Damon Turner, she then slowly and carefully began to repeat Black Lives Matter, until the statement crescendoed and metamorphized into what felt like a song, a prayer, the opaque material metaphysicizing the room, world.
Sarno’s installation at the Grand Central Art Center, homeland (2014, 2015) was a rendition of her final thesis show at UCI the year before. homeland (2015) held a blue space. I did not know this when I was there, but the blue filling the space was the colors of the nearby Laguna Beach. The space was filled by this deepest lapis blue: there is no color like this and there was no other color in the room but this. The space was also full by what at first felt like an array of clacking sounds. The more one stayed in the space the more the sounds began to individualize: they are taps, they are tap shoes. There are speakers on the floor and each speaker echoes the performance of one set of tap shoes. At times the sounds collide together like music and dance, at other times they splinter like scatters. All of this has meaning of course, all of this is set.
The sculptural piece, the beacon, was a tower. Gleaming and lifesize Sarno explains to me after the fact that she wanted a tower but wanted to build it herself. She was surprised and then not surprised to learn that a standard lifeguard’s tower (the one we have become accustomed to recognizing as such) is one of the easiest to remake as the construction was imagined for incarcerated, “non-skilled” laborers. The lifeguard tower is supposed to be easy to put together: it was designed for the “non-expert.” An emblem of surveillance: how the architect anticipates its construction and participation.
In homeland (2014, 2015) the tap sounds harken to the historical linkage between chattel slavery and surveillance. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness Simone Browne argues compellingly that surveillance studies does not begin with Foucault or Edward Snowden, but with the transatlantic slave trade. Looking to the records created for slave persons to all the ways in which the TSA have performed “hair searches” on black women, Browne works not only to peer at the representation of, but examines the roots and politics of surveillance. In similar vein Sarno’s homeland (2014, 2015) and home away from (2017) examine the historical fissures of surveillance. Sarno tells me that during her research on tower building and theories of surveillance, she learned that the invention of ID cards, or the notion of identification papers comes from documents created to record chattel slave persons–which spans chattel slavery in ancient Greek and Roman times to chattel slavery in the United States. She became interested in the absence of this discourse from popular forms of discussion concerning surveillance. In constructing the divergent ambiances that construct the boundless surveillance reached in the name of Our Home Land, Sarno does so by filling the room with taps. She tells me that as one of the earliest African American cultural forms, tap contradicts and moves with (and against) the histories of everything else in the room: the exclusive ocean site, the replicable lifeguard tower and all that this means, the omnipresence we can and cannot name.
Sarno’s current show at LACE, home away from develops on the political constructions of surveillance, protest and materiality explored in homeland (2014, 2015). The main sculpture in home away from is constructed of 33 panels lined with 49 pieces of wood, which Sarno, like the lifeguard tower, learned to construct herself. The sculpture is inspired by the interconnections between the image of Hollywood flats, and the holding blocks constructed at the site of the border.
home away from at LACE works through all of our sensory systems: sounds, touch, sight and smell. The main sculpture guiding the pathway is a wooden structure that depicts the architectural tensions between what has become visually normalized in the US as the hollywood flat, but also suspension points. That is, borders, airports, imposed checkpoints where the body is said to be nowhere, waiting to be processed and waiting for approval.
The wooden sculpture is an opening and closed walkway; those who venture may walk narrowly to arrive at the end’s oval opening. While more spacious than its initial entry point, the end exists without exit. Sarno describes how the wooden sculpture was constructed while researching checkpoints imposed by Israel to Palestinian workers, the ways in which the checkpoints confine the bodies in question, and are constructed to be violently circular and irregular. The body may pass through but the passing through is not a mobility.
Sarno tells me that, “The mobility of [these] black holes,” and their construction (who imagines and then who constructs the sites to who is imagined as passing through) conditions home away from. The hollywood flat is of a particular and pivotal note here. Sarno describes that the hollywood flat symbolizes, “The construction of an ideal through the use of a conventional holding structure and an affixed, interchangeable surface.” The hollywood flat is a well worn western symbol of coziness, of warmth: of a welcoming and interior we should aspire towards. The taking of this form–the familiar and welcoming flat–and by collocating it to a suspension point, home away from quietly presses: what is imagined for the mobile black holes, what has been stripped, and what remains? Sarno states that the wooden structure is, “Without plaster, failing as both a home and a hollywood flat. The surface is permeable and the structure is inside out.” The sculpture stands as a changing signifier of the could-be but failing home.
This sculpture is lit from within. There are four light bulbs that light the space and they are inside the sculpture. The light bulbs are suspended and low to the ground, hung by what seems like indestructible wire. Those moving through the sculpture can move the lights. And depending on the time of day, the shadows made by their movement may be altered. Linked to the metaphors stitched into home away from, the shadows of the lattices and the bodies may inside grow.
The shadows move with two video projections on opposing sides of the gallery walls. The collaborative videos depict the scanning process of “Self Portraits,” a project that comes out of Sarno’s work as a teaching artist. The self-portraits come from Belvedere Middle School in East LA, particularly the classrooms of Ms. Escalante (US History 8th), Ms. Adewale (English 7), Ms. Macías (English 7), Mr. Acosta (8th grade special day), Mr. Conde (World history 6th) and Ms. Flores (ESL 6-8)). These young artists used carbon paper to trace/draw their ideal photographic portraits; as a practice test the carbon side was set aside to be discarded but instead in the form of video, has been memorialized. The video projects selections of their fully drawn faces. They are the faces, the bodies that are perpetually present in the room.
Sounds of the scanning process from the video can be faintly heard throughout but particularly at the entrance. The sound that fills the room is a 2 channel piece. The speaker at the entrance holds the scanning process, the back speaker is at 174Hz and 639 Hz. Sarno describes that 174Hz is the “natural anaesthetic” pitch, said to “Reduce pain physically and energetically.” 639 Hz is said to enhance communication, understanding and tolerance. The two sounds work together to fill the wooden sculpture in the middle.
The room is filled with a subtle scent that makes it easy and desirable to stay in the space. Sarno states that the Palestinian herbalist Jenny Qaqundah developed a grounding and healing scent for “those who entered the space away from home.” Everything that fills the space Sarno has constructed, imagines the prolonged extension of home sickness.
I want to end by commenting on the labor of Sarno’s home away from. While viewing the exhibit a few people described the installation as formally-like the work of Richard Serra. This was said, probably, as a commentary on the complexities found in Sarno’s installation, as a “formal” complement to her sculptural work. However, I could not think of an artist’s practice Sarno’s body of work could more implicitly or explicitly oppose. Each lattice, the opened and closed parts of the sculpture, every frame of the wood work in home away from works towards splintering their political familiarities in our current US lives. It is true that like pre-constructed boundaries and perimeters, the wooden sculpture in home away from is mechanically seamless. Its construction is so well taken that akin to official documents and procedures, a sense of sterility is at play. When something is so perfect, when the rules seem finite and unknowable it’s because its veneer is opaque, vacant: this is the aesthetics of its power. The wooden sculpture in home away from purposefully enacts this perfection but does so by maintaining its irregular form. And by reaching into all of our sensory systems: sight, sound, smell, touch–it renders the affects permuting the sterility, as not beyond or beneath, but part of the processes of away and from.
Jimena Sarno is a multidisciplinary artist and organizer. She works across a range of media including installation, sound, video, text and sculpture. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and currently living in Los Angeles, her experience as a South American immigrant informs her practice. Her work has been exhibited at LACE, The Mistake Room, Human Resources, PØST, UCI Contemporary Art Center, Control Room, Fellows of Contemporary Art and Grand Central Art Center among others. She is the recipient of the 2015 California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists.
She is the organizer of analog dissident, a monthly discussion gathering that features work and work-in-progress by two invited artists. As an informal, open studio visit, analog dissident encourages intersectional approaches and is aimed at radical/immigrant/POC/queer artists and thinkers to engage critically outside of traditional art institutions, school, gallery openings and most importantly, outside of social media.