Shifting Spaces

“Exodus” at the Arts Incubator

A lot of good design went into giving the Washington Park Arts Incubator a welcoming and airy street-side façade, with its big, vulnerable glass windows. An artwork like Alfredo Salazar-Caro’s “In and Out, In and Out, In and Out” demonstrates just how easy it is to shut that illusion of openness down.

His chain link fence, sandbagged into place just past the Incubator’s glowing, translucent door, is part of a joint exhibition with Nigerian American artist Alexandria Eregbu entitled “Exodus.” For the most part, the two artists rely on sculpture to interrogate migration, belonging, and the social contexts where these fraught terms hang out. The pair tackles this in a way that’s particularly attentive to how humans actually go about controlling and organizing their fellow bodies these days: through coded systems and processes, often lurking just beyond common sight.

This happens on a couple of levels inside a work like “In and Out.” Salazar-Caro’s fence follows in a long tradition of sculptural objects that actively confront gallery-goers. These objects force folks to think about and then use the space in the room differently. At the very least, “In and Out” obligates a body to move to the left or the right after entering the Incubator. Direct, linear access to the building—something that the Incubator’s architectural style and mission statement proudly advertise—is abruptly arrested at a first encounter with its interior. Salazar-Caro invites a comparison between this micro-moment and the ongoing harms of U.S. anti-immigration policy. The shining city on a hill—still presumptuously asking for huddled masses—is about as hospitable, once you get past the rhetoric, as “Exodus” itself.

An LCD monitor fixed to the chain-link fence loops a heat-shimmering video of a cluster of people waiting outside a border crossing. The same people who fictively watched you enter into “Exodus” will preside over your departure. Their spatial condition will not change, although you enjoy full mobility. Step around the fence—gain access to the exclusive space—and the technology that keeps the screen hanging to the surface of the fence, running its perpetual loop, is legible and tantalizingly accessible.

The jet-black cable ties used to fasten the monitor’s load to the burnished steel are the same ties used by law enforcement as makeshift handcuffs in mass-detainment scenarios. The symbol of police presence is entirely invisible from outside, but hiding in plain sight from within. The cable ties literally enforce a stasis—acting against gravity to keep the screen from falling to the ground, where it cannot be easily surveilled by the audience. The ties justify their place in the composition just as a border patrol justifies its place in an American polity by practically altering the position of virtual individuals, people may not be credited as equal beings.

“In and Out” makes artistic claims by calling attention to the precise manner, the particular style, in which tasks are accomplished: how we enter a space, how we fix bodies. These gestures take on new and special meaning when considered alongside the videogame Salazar-Caro exhibits, “Border Crossing Beta 2.0.” The game is set from the first-person perspective, in the several hundred yards of desert nearest a length of U.S.-Mexico border wall. The monitor for the game is haphazardly half-set in a sandbox delineated with cinderblocks—a ubiquitous material across many prefab fortifications. By itself, a videogame submerged in dirt appears to be a one-off joke on the language of game development: too often, the funding executives appeal to the “immersive” and “gritty” qualities of their photorealistic and hyper-authentic titles.

Salazar-Caro, however, makes his appeal to “immersion” much differently. He alters the conventions of movement in the first-person perspective, introducing a weird, rightward bias to the character’s forward movement. Unless the player corrects this tendency by pressing both the up and the left arrow keys, the player will frustratingly tack towards the distant border wall. The desire to approach that point on the horizon is thus hard-coded into the very few rules of the game, and signals a deeper belief that the wall is the be-all, end-all, in both border control debates and the actual act of migrating. Combined with the character’s painfully weak walking pace, the hallucinatory crystal skulls occasionally floating through the game’s sky, the very real sense that you’re being angrily observed from afar (by the line of people wanting to demo the game), “Border Crossing” more palpably engages with the psychology of its subject matter than the words “immersive” or “gritty” could conventionally signify.

Alexandria Eregbu comes up with the show’s most poignant formulation of warped rules in “4 Legged Race for a Second Class Citizen.” She’s able to intersect the physical manipulation of bodies, systems, and games, by fastening three athletic hurdles to the gallery walls at ninety-degree angles and varying heights, setting a fourth hurdle at its proper orientation up against the gallery’s far wall. At its core, track and field is as corporally manipulative as any deportation policy and has its rules, as any game.

It asks its practitioners not just to contort themselves expertly in the moment, but radically organize their lives to train for that capacity. “4 Legged Race” poses a problem in three dimensions that no expert athlete could train for. The shimmering gold surfaces of the hurdles’ top crossbars warp and distort the faces of those who’d size this challenge up, mocking them. They are a fool’s gold, teasing viciously with the color of athletics’ highest honor. “Exodus” nevertheless shines the brightest behind these false fronts. It accomplishes its best work at the points where codes switch, rules change—where the going gets unexpectedly rough.

Arts Incubator Gallery, 301 E. Garfield Blvd. Through March 20. Tuesday-Friday, 12pm-6pm; Thursday, 12pm-7pm. Free. (773)702-9724. arts.uchicago.edu

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