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#Curating Activism: An Interview with Julio César Morales

Julio César Morales is an artist, curator, and educator who recently left the San Francisco Bay Area to become curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe. Morales was an adjunct curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 2008-12, where he created PAUSE: Practice and Exchange,” a series of solo exhibitions by artists including Allan de Souza, Euan Macdonald, and Gina Osterloh. He is a co-founder of San Francisco’s Queen’s Nails Projects. Anuradha Vikram spoke to him about his recent transition and his commitment to community-based art and activism.

AV: Do you think that art can influence public opinion and public policy? Is this a legitimate goal for artists to have?

JM: Yes, I do! At the risk of sounding too utopian, there are and have been some amazing projects that have had an impact at various levels of civic engagement. Look at an artist such as Suzanne Lacy, who for the last 30 years has created a wide range of projects that, at their core, are about social change and changing public policy. Her 1977 project, Three Weeks In May,  had a forceful political imperative—to bring hidden experiences of rape to public attention—and her 1999 Oakland-based project, Code 33, was a three year project to reduce police hostility toward youth, provide youth with a set of skills to participate in their communities, and generate a more profound understanding of youth needs. This project led to the development of youth training for the police department. Now anyone entering the police has to take the training created by Lacy and her collaborators, including myself.

Another example is the Tijuana-based Torolab, led by Raúl Cárdenas, which serves as a collective workshop and laboratory, identifying situations or phenomena of interest for research, with a focus on lifestyles and “quality of life.” One recent project, COMA, traced the physiological changes of a Mexican person in their everyday relation to food. The project culminated in creating a type of bread containing all the nutrients absent in a typical Mexican diet, according to the Mexican national health census. This new food product was launched in Puebla, with the support of the city, and is now helping to combat diabetes and malnutrition.

Julio César Morales, "Undocumented Interventions #1," 2011. Watercolor and ink on paper. 32.5 x 24.5 in.

AV: Your new position includes building a collection of contemporary video art from Latin America. What are your thoughts on this component of your job, considering it’s a curatorial function you have thus far avoided? Do you view archiving as a political act?

JM: This new program I am developing, to present and collect Latin American video art of the past decade, serves as a mirror. I am working to develop the largest Latin American video archive in the U.S., housed in the city most threatening to Latinos in the U.S. This juxtaposition reflects the ongoing struggles between the U.S. and Mexico and their parasitic need for each other. I don’t think I avoided this before—while at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I commissioned many artists to develop new video projects. It’s how I have always worked with artists, attempting to push their practice into new territories. I feel it’s all coming together in the most unexpected location!

“I’m So Goth – I’m Dead!” exhibition at Queen’s Nails Projects, San Francisco, 2012.

AV: How do you negotiate the type of authority that comes with this capacity?

JM: The environment at the A.S.U. Art Museum is amazing. What John Speak pulled off before my arrival influenced my decision to accept the position, and I have to say that I feel one hundred percent supported in what I would like to bring to the museum, and to Arizona. The project that is about to open, which involved working with the Jumex collection, is an amazing show. It should have a profound impact in the current cultural climate in Arizona.

AV: At Queen’s Nails, you had complete freedom, leaving open the possibility of anarchy—or even nihilism, as in the recent Claire Fontaine event.[1] What are some viable strategies to engage with questions of legality or legitimacy within the constraints of an academic institution? Has asking certain questions or proposing certain alternatives ever caused you trouble while curating within an institution?

Claire Fontaine, “Sell Your Debt,” exhibition at Queen’s Nails Projects, 2013.

JM: I love Queen’s Nails. It offered an amazing freedom that others have followed. Recent shows such as “I Am So Goth I am Dead!” (co-curated with Bob Linder) proved to be the sort of magic that rarely happens in a lifetime, or between collaborators. If I died tomorrow, I’d like to be remembered for that show. When I first started to work at YBCA, the first thing that happened is that I would get into fights with certain departments and people “in charge”—things could be less about the work itself and more about position, or the power people had over each other. It was an amazing relief to set up great shows at Queen’s Nails—we could send the press release the day before the opening and have 200 people show up.

Bob and I are both outsider curators. We curate out of necessity. We would not have been able to do the Claire Fontaine show at any other Bay Area institution. Part of the project was the frustration with other institutions not wanting to take a risk! Tomorrow morning[2] Bob has to go to court, as he is being prosecuted by the San Francisco district attorney on charges that are really not relevant to art, but rather civil code. Not many curators have the audacity to do what we did, but this is our MO—as with many other artists we work with. Or maybe we are just missing a couple of brain cells…

Los Jaichackers (Julio César Morales and Eamon Ore-Giron), “Phantom Sightings,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008.

AV: How are the changes in your life and environment appearing in the art you’ve been making recently?

JM: Well I can say that I only have two jobs now—curating and making art! I have had five jobs in the Bay Area over the last 12 years, so maybe this is what being “normal” is like? Being calmer has given me more strength to approach art making in a new light, an opportunity that I have never had before. I am still working on the same topics—labor, migration and social change—but now I can really take my time, and that is special and kind of sweet!


[1] Morales’s gallery made national headlines on January 22, 2013, when a sculpture of the US made of matches was set ablaze during a solo exhibition by Parisian collective Claire Fontaine. Though the gallery stated that the burn was controlled and no damage caused by fire, excessive smoke coming from within caused neighbors to call 911.

[2] Morales was interviewed on March 5, 2013.

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