Terms of Refusal Resident 2020 Sofia Cordova in conversation with open call jury member Rahel Aima
Learn more about the open call: Terms of Refusal
Sofia Cordova is a Puerto Rican-born, Oakland-based conceptual interdisciplinary artist who works with performance, music, video, photography, sculpture and installation. Her work, which has been exhibited and collected by art institutions such as SFMOMA and the Whitney, considers sci-fi and futurity, dance and music culture(s), the internet, mystical objects, extinction and mutation, migration, marginality, and climate change under the conditions of late capitalism and its technologies. During her residency, she will develop a multimedia performance piece, Guillotina WannaCry, focusing on the lack of Pop cultural language surrounding the idea of historical and future revolution. Sofia spoke with jury member Rahel Aima, a writer and editor at publications such as Artnews, The New Inquiry, Art Review Asia, and Momus.
Q: How does the prompt for this year’s Eyebeam residency, “What are the terms of refusal,” relate to your work or practice?
I’ve always been wary of the structures of the art world, particularly because when I went to grad school, I was initiated into what is an incredibly fraught system. I think that my practice in very direct ways is in conversation with capitalism and technology and how it has a duplicitous language that often dovetails with neoliberalism, particularly in the arts. It might create spaces for the expression of marginalized bodies but it also co-opts those voices into the machine. So that’s one direct way that I think my work relates to this concept of “terms of refusal,” but I think that I’m also interested in more subtle ways of creating opportunity and spaces, and any number of other positive ideologies of liberation by saying “No.” How do we find ways forward using ambivalence or other modes of uncertainty, not being so hard-lined in terms of how we feel?
Q: How do you reconcile your participation in the art market and institutions with the institutional critiques so essential to your work?
SC: I think a lot of people who want to be—and genuinely are—doing good work often think that piggybacking on institutional support is a way of playing Robin Hood. But can you actually ever do that? Can you actually take the resources and then spread them in a more equitable or fair way when those resources aren’t coming to you for free? Your cultural creation, time, labor, and identity become the thing that you are bartering. The institution is always very happy to have you critique it softly because then it can get away with saying “Hey, look, we’re tackling this head on while also giving this person an opportunity.”
I’m interested in how artists decide to collectively bargain for not just a better, more liberal landscape, but a better and more transparent art world that could start yielding resource opportunities that aren't tied to problematic sources. How can I make work about climate change when the folks that support the art are so complicit in this point of our Earth’s demise? My idea of personal success involves being part of a network of artists vocalizing about wanting to change our systems and support ones that are more transparent and accountable.
Q: This might break down differently in different facets of your work, but who is your audience and how do you reach them?
SC: Over time, my work has started to encompass both dance music and culture and this idea of science fiction as a space to explore not just liberation but alternative histories. My work started to tell me (as often happens, the work often speaks back to you) that it needed to really concern itself with what kind of future I was interested in creating and being a part of. Ideas of queerness and gender as being unpinnable, as well as race and other issues of marginality, started to bleed in. Once I started working with more than one medium, the audience was always filled with those bodies which the work was concerned with representing. I started working with performers of color and with queer and trans performers. Even though representation isn’t the whole pie, it’s an important piece. I think that answers who my ideal audience is. That’s not to say that I want queer POC to be the only audience, because I’m interested, too, in how the work reads based on different subjectivities—I often hide things within my work that are accessed on an “if you know, you know” basis. Whether that is through language or a cultural tip of the cap. The work is built to be experienced very differently depending on who is sitting in front of it.
In terms of how I reach an audience, that really varies, that is part of why I’ve been working with performance. I think that while an exhibition space can be really important to me, I’m not going to deny that I derive a great deal of pleasure from my exhibition-making. I really like to world-build, which is also something that is important in science fiction. Performance has a different kind of energy that works against progress-driven ideas of linear time, but it is also specific to who is in the room at the time.
Q: What are you planning to do with the resources and time you’ll receive as an Eyebeam resident?
SC: The new work I’m dealing with will exist as a performance, set five to ten years in the future, with a lush video component. The work is about considering revolution. It looks at the histories of revolution while also imagining its possibilities going forward. I’m working from a place of ambivalence and being an irritant both to overly romantic notions of past revolutions and how those revolutions are demonized. America in particular is very invested in demonizing them. I want the work to be deliberately open-ended because the moment I say “this is the way it will be,” I am committing the crime that I want to work against, which is saying that there is only one viable pathway towards radical change. I want the work to be really abstract, following the absurdist theater tradition. When the piece is performed live, it will be more of a theater piece, which will be filmed and exhibited within an installation.
The piece is called Guillotina WannaCry, named after the 2017 ransomware attack [by the WannaCry cryptoworm]. Originally, it had a parenthetical subtitle, “Why is there no guillotine emoji?” Why is there no Pop cultural language available for imagining revolution, (not that I am necessarily for a violent revolution)? I have built a preliminary act here in my studio, working with dancers and gathering the text for the script from various sources online, deliberately not presenting myself as the “author.” One character only speaks in YouTube comments, one in the voice of psychics from reality TV shows. The scope of their language is limited by what I am able to glean from the Pop machine.