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At the recent Art Basel Miami, artist rafa esparza invited members of his Los Angeles community to mount and ride his body, having transmuted himself into a lowrider. For the performance, titled Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser (2022), gold-plated casts of esparza’s forearms and feet, a beach cruiser bicycle frame, and a retrofitted 25-cent mechanical children’s ride were welded together. The artist inserted himself into the makeshift bike frame, back arched, belly down, arms extended, chin propped up. Four sets of glistening chrome feet fanned out behind him, webbed together by neon green painted aluminum. Baroque-style twisted handlebars rose out of esparza’s head like antlers ready to be grasped. esparza’s friend, artist Gabriela Ruiz, inserted a coin to start the bike. Wearing a pair of headphones, riders took turns privately listening to esparza’s voice as the bike bounced the both of them. Collaborative to its core, Terra Cruiser was realized with help from esparza’s artist community, including Ruiz, Victor Barragán, Karla Ekatherine Canseco, Fabian Guerrero, Mario Ayala, and Guadalupe Rosales.
Drawing from lowrider and cruising culture as well as Indigenous motifs, esparza’s lowrider cyborg imagines shapeshifting as a tool for transgressively animating the nonhuman. Terra Cruiser embodies what postcolonial feminist theorist Chéla Sandoval refers to as a “cyb[org] form of resistance,”1 in which the embrace of hybrid creatures becomes an effective method of refusal under postmodern cultural conditions that encourage conformity. Sandoval argues that “the colonized peoples of the Americas have already developed the cyborg skills required for survival under techno-human conditions as a requisite for survival under domination.”2 In an inherently queer union of animal and machine, both primordial and bionic, esparza’s lowrider utilizes cyborg skills to deconstruct traditional notions of the lowrider, the nonhuman, and the human.
Past works have seen esparza chipping his ensconced body out of a concrete pillar outside the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in L.A’s Chinatown (Bust. a meditation on freedom., 2015) and having his full body painted for 12 hours for the first iteration of the lowrider work (Corpo Ranfla, 2018). esparza is intimately familiar with physical and emotional shapeshifting and duress, adapting the embodied stakes of each of his performances to its site. This ability to adapt and shapeshift—qualities necessary for resistance—is evident in esparza’s many transformations of his body. Upon his return from Miami, I sat down with esparza at his Boyle Heights studio to discuss ideas of animacy, the nonhuman, and queer kin. And, as it turns out, the cyborgian has been a part of esparza’s practice all along.
stephanie mei huang: You have referred to your work as “lowrider armor”3 and described the joys of honing in your own self-presentation. Can you speak to this idea of arming yourself through adorning and how that might function in your daily life?
rafa esparza: Sure. That’s something that I think a lot about in terms of the relationships that queer people of color have with fashion, clothes, makeup, and accessories. I think all of these things are tools that allow us to express ourselves in a heteronormative world that enforces this gender binary. [When] I was talking about body armor, I was thinking about my relationship to fashion—the ways that I’ve fashioned myself, how and by whom I was taught how to carry my masculinity, and the ways that I choose to intervene in that. To me, [the way that] our communities have customized and built these cars feels so inherently queer…in terms of the choice of these very vibrant color combos that are dusted with shimmering metal flakes—oftentimes they have a rainbow-like reflection. Again, all of these things feel like the ways that accessories are used [in queer expression].
And armor, I think it’s something that also emboldens you and empowers you to just step out into the world—those decisions that we make every day that are literally how we choose to show ourselves to the world. It made so much sense for [the Terra Cruiser] to have that function—an armor that’s expressing a style and an aesthetic, but also very pragmatically, I’m turning myself into a car. So, how [do I] embody this machine and these aesthetics in a way that makes sense to me and my body and how I know it in different spaces and [especially] public spaces?
smh: In order to become the cyborg lowrider, there is a sense of morphing into another entity entirely. The ride requires your presence to animate it, yet there’s this balance between the fact that you are actually still when you are in it, but you’re still moving. I’m drawn to this tension between the animated and the still, human and nonhuman. In their book Animacies, Mel Y. Chen suggests that “queering is immanent to animate transgressions, violating proper intimacies (including between humans and nonhuman things).”4 How do you approach the nonhuman?
re: The more that I thought about how to configure my body in relationship to a form, I started to pay attention to what parts of a car (or a bike, in this case) my body [could] conform to. [I was] trying to push beyond things that felt very obvious in the first go-around. Like, what part of a human body becomes the windshield of a car? What part of the body becomes the tires or the hood or the trunk? It was this collaging of my body with silhouettes of different cars—I remember cutting up pictures of my body and rearranging them.
I was thinking about this relationship between human and machine and of course, a cyborg or a cyborgian narrative. [In] most, if not all, of the contemporary narratives that exist about cyborgs or dystopic features, there’s a sort of dependency on technology and machines that are used to enhance the human body. I started looking into a history of anthropomorphic images, where you see humans becoming animals and plants and inanimate organic objects… It informed how I wanted to move forward with this project.
I wanted to make [the sculpture] more about what I think is an Indigenous sensibility towards nature and animals. [I] wanted to think about this machine [and] the progenitors of these cars, [who] happen to be people that are in the U.S. that come from a diaspora from colonized countries. I was just attending to these “coincidences” of the images—a lot of [what] these cars are embellished with happen to be these very proud [images of] Indigenous histories, these kind of Aztec figures.
[What] if I take on this mission or this process of becoming a machine—what is at stake? Why do that? That question is what informs how the piece ends up existing. I want it to be more about learning about this machine, and literally, that’s [what] my performance practice is for me. It’s an embodied way of building a relationship to space, to people, to objects.
smh: It’s interesting to think about the cyborg still needing other people…the cyborg as a relational being.
re: I feel like gathering my queer family around this performance made it so that I could kind of just allow myself to be part of this, like, machine that’s gonna give people rides. We built the frame as such that it could, when I’m not in it, still gesture toward a body. But when I’m in it, it actually needs someone to activate the machine. I have no way of powering it. So, having Karla there, having Gabriela there, just having my whole family there, and having them be the ones that are guiding people aboard this machine, brought intimacy into the work. I don’t know what that would’ve looked like otherwise.
smh: There’s also this both literal and metaphorical process of bottoming with the level of trust that is required in this piece. How did it feel to have members of your community ride you?
re: That felt almost like a given. Back when I was doing my undergrad work, there were pieces that were attempting to think about the language that we use to describe a type of engagement. “Fucking with my ancestors”—I remember that that idea, that phrase, was so present—never verbally or written or even explicitly expressed through a single artwork. But [it’s a] playful, sexual, and colloquial term that a lot of working-class POC use.
When you fuck with someone, it has so many meanings, right? You’re either fooling around with someone, you’re being playful with someone. You engage with someone in a respectful way. Like, “I don’t fuck with this person,” or “yes, I totally fuck with that, that’s really cool.” You know, there are different ways of saying this word that I loved to think about when I was thinking of how to engage with nonliving people—just thinking of a spirit, an essence, an energy that inspires thinking, that inspires images. How [can I] engage with those beings, those entities, those histories, those memories in a way that felt real to me and not so academic? And, [not] just, I guess, boring.
And so here, obviously growing with my practice and with these ideas and then growing within a queer community, I feel like this work embodies that same phrase. Really fucking with my community, fucking with my friends, fucking with the art world, you know? Fucking with them literally. Riding and being ridden has also very vast and similar connotations, right? Riding someone, or being ridden: Both of those things could be seen as either topping or bottoming. I wanted that to be part of this work. I wanted to intervene in the history of this male-dominated space of building cars, you know? I’ve had a very conflicting relationship to those spaces, in terms of my being queer.
smh: It can be a very macho space.
re: Yeah. Queer [people’s presence] felt very lacking [in car culture]. …We didn’t see ourselves explicitly [or safely] represented in these spaces. I wanted [the work] to be both [an embrace of] this lowrider thing and also [to] unsettle it at the same time. I have family members that build cars. I have family members that have cars that are part of lowrider car clubs. I wanted to bring into question the ways in which these cars are so celebrated and lauded in public spaces. And then how it might be the complete opposite for queer people in public spaces. And so, joining these two different bodies, an auto body and a queer body, within this lowrider ride that could actually be ridden by another person. What [could that] evoke?
Having my friends, having my community be the people that rode me was a way of supporting or participating in this conversation. There was also something about, for me, questioning the kind of public space that we were in—an art fair, that [is] very inherently already exclusive for my community by virtue of it being in Miami, but also [the fact that it is a] ticketed event that is very inaccessible for a lot of people in my community. So the invitation to ride this work was another very important aspect of the performance.
smh: I appreciate that about your work and the spaces I’ve seen your work in—there is this sense of inviting. It was really formative for me when I saw your show at Ballroom Marfa in 2018, to see the people that you invited to be a part of it. I think that Marfa is really different now, but it was just the first time I felt like a space in Marfa felt restored to its people—the majority of the people who live there. Whenever you have a solo opportunity, you are inviting other people in your community in.
re: There are words and functions of art that are turned into catchphrases that become very prevalent in terms of how a broader kind of art public talks about art. I am constantly trying [to] resist that legibility, even just in ways that, like, the word “community” has been so co-opted and overused.
There is something to me that is still really important about unsettling, like, notions of authorship and ownership. Museums and well-established art institutions have been brought to task in terms of how they think about inclusivity and diversity. At this point, as much as I know about museums, that is something that I’m probably not gonna see in my lifetime. It feels like it’s very slow. There are so many things that have to change.
The best thing that I could do is have my community participate in resources that I have and have access to spaces that I have access to. Also, [participating] in spaces that are forming themselves and [helping to] build spaces that are informed by an ethos and a culture that is not present in these traditional art spaces.…[When you participate in community, there is an ease] of being able to contextualize what you’re doing, literally build a discursive space [where] you kind of see yourself active in the world. All of those are things that could happen when you work together with people.
rafa esparza (b. 1981, Los Angeles) is a multidisciplinary L.A.-based artist whose work reveals his interests in history, personal narratives, kinship, and his own relationship to colonization and the disrupted genealogies that it produces. esparza’s recent projects are grounded in laboring with land and adobe-making, a skill learned from his father, Ramón Esparza. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2021); MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA (2019); ArtPace, San Antonio, TX (2018); and Ballroom Marfa, TX (2017).
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 31.