We have been very excited about the work this person is currently doing here in the Coachella Valley since first learning about him a little more than a year ago. That’s when César Garćia Alvarez was named co-curator for the 2021 Desert X art exhibits. César is our Man Crush this week. Recently, Gay Desert Guide’s Jeff Denean Jones interviewed César for today’s spotlight. Everything from art’s potential role in a healthier society and yes, even Marilyn’s return to Palm Springs couldn’t be avoided, and so much more in between.
CÉSAR: Art has always been a big part of my life. I grew up dancing and executive produced student-run musical theater when I was in college but it wasn’t until my senior year in college that I realized that this was meant to be my life’s work. I went to graduate school and through a professor started working as a curator at a space she ran, so I made a shift into the visual arts in my early twenties and never looked back. I make sense of the world through artists and their work and believe deeply that it is through the imagination that we empower people to see beyond their circumstances, and in turn, make new worlds. That is what animates all I do.
GDG: Is there an art genre and/or artist that you connect with most? If so, tell us about this.
CÉSAR: I don’t have a specific genre or artist I connect with most, but I do gravitate toward artworks that defy boundaries. I like work that asks us to re-imagine what art can be and that often sits strangely between categories. I worked for experimental art spaces most of my life until I founded my own in 2014 in Los Angeles (The Mistake Room). I’ve liked working in contexts like that because it allows me to help artists bring their most ambitious projects to fruition. So when I work with an artist I often ask them to tell me about the strangest idea they have, the one they think seems most improbable, and that’s the one I like to help them bring to life.
GDG: From the perspective of Co-Curator, how has 2021 Desert X surprised you, challenged you, and strengthened/inspired you?
CÉSAR:This exhibition is definitely a milestone moment for me, both personally and professionally. It is one of the hardest projects I’ve had to work on and one that has completely changed how I will approach my work after this. We worked on this exhibition throughout a period of immense difficulty for everyone around the globe. We organized a show during a pandemic and that meant that we had to re-think it all—staring with whether or not doing an exhibition was what we should be doing at this time. We decided early on that it was important for us to think about what would come after, what we’d need to heal, and we decided that art was going to be a big part of our collective recovery. I’m very proud of the team at Desert X for making that decision early on. In the process, we knew that our show was going to be different. That we weren’t going to be able to have openings the way we were used to, that programs were going to have to be virtual, that we were not going to be able to necessarily hold space with others. At first, that was a hard pill to swallow and I’ll admit that I was disappointed that this project would be so different than what I originally envisioned I would be doing when I signed on. But, things turned out much better, because what happened was that we had to strip down the show from all the noise; from the pomp and circumstance that often distracts from the heart of a project like this—the art and the artists. I had an opportunity to work so closely with them to develop projects, we had long conversations about the world we envisioned after the pandemic, and the intimacy of the process made it so worthwhile. In many ways, the exhibition brought me back to basics and served as a reminder that our first responsibility as curators will always be the artists and the art and not the infrastructures that too often demand our time away from that. I also got an opportunity to spend time in the Coachella Valley while most things were shut down—so I had a chance to get to meet people who live here and aren’t just visitors. I got to see firsthand a new generation of young creatives who are committed to uplifting the voices of people who have called this place home for a long time. That was very special. It was grounding. I like to think that all this is reflected in the exhibition, that while pieces speak to broad universal themes they are rooted in the lives that are lived in this place, and those realities can be seen in conversations about people elsewhere too. That was my initial goal for this show, and I think that while it may look and feel a little different than what I originally envisioned, it is the right show for the right time, and one that I will be forever proud of.
GDG: Whether it’s geology, natural resources, architecture, or art, it’s undeniable the desert inspires creativity, beauty, collaboration, and sometimes provocation. What’s your impression of the desert and the art born here?
CÉSAR: There is a mythology to this place that has been forged by many histories. This is a sovereign tribal nation, a space of/for tourism, it is a retirement community, it is an anchoring site in modernist architectural history, a place of iconic music festivals, a safe space for queer folks, but it is also a border region, a space of tremendous inequality, and a place of many charged pasts. Like the geological processes that form deserts themselves, it is a locale forged by layered histories and contradicting experiences. There has been one thing for me that has been so inspiring about the creative scene here and it is a generation of young people who are born and raised here and who are working very hard to make sure that they too have a seat at the table in shaping the creative and artistic economy of this place so that others like them have a shot too. That has been the singular most inspiring thing for me during the process of curating Desert X 2021. I think about Adrian and Sesar who just opened hermano flower shop at the Mojave Flea Trading Post and also Casey who just started Vagabond Roasting Company at the Mojave Flea as well (my favorite place for coffee in the Valley). I think about Las Tias, a remarkable duet of musicians and also of Giselle Woo and The Night Owls. I think about the teams behind Hoja Blanca and Gabino’s Creperie and about the inimitable Christine Soto and her Dead or Alive Wine Bar. I think about the folks behind Las Palmas Brewing. I think of Flat Black Shop and of the Coachella Valley Art Center and of the community that makes the James O. Jessie Center such a magical place.There are many big and flashy moments in the Valley, but it’s the creative people who make everyday extraordinary who most inspired me and whose work I look forward to continue to follow.
GDG: How does the greater art world consider Coachella Valley? From the world out there, is there a sense of a thriving, transformative center of activity and creativity producing world class works of art? Or, is it the aesthetics of the dramatic landscape with wide open spaces the primary appeal for global artists, art festivals and art-focused events, like Desert X, Coachella Music and Art Festival, Joshua Tree Music Festival, etc.
CÉSAR: I think that the mythologies of this place often take up more oxygen than the realities lived. It’s easy to think about this place from the outside and just think of music festivals, tennis tournaments, etc. I will admit that I too had skewed perspectives of this place before I started to work on Desert X 2021. The more time I was able to spend here the more the mythologies disappear and you begin to tune into the people who are really doing great work here across a wide range of creative disciplines. I think there’s a lot of work to be done so that those great folks who are putting in the work to make this place super special for those who live here get the much deserved recognition they deserve. It’s going to take time to shift perspectives I think, but I’m so certain that will happen because of all the great things happening across the creative sector. This place is already in many ways a creative powerhouse, not because of festivals or big events but because of people who live here and who are investing their time and talents into their communities. We just need to uplift and elevate them more when we have platforms that can do that so that people elsewhere get to know about them too.
GDG: Regardless of the occasional controversy and the guaranteed swell of public opinion that accompanies most public art, there is the undeniable benefit of discussion, press, education, debate, etc this will likely evoke. The result being a more informed, a more culturally aware, and a more engaged community and society. Nicholas Galanin’s Never Forget installation goes above and beyond fulfilling this, as companion installations for 2021 and prior year counterparts have achieved. I’m sure you have heard chatter about the Forever Marilyn statue and its controversial placement in front of Palm Springs Museum. Forever Marilyn is becoming more infamous as a result. Without asking for a position on this current controversy, what is your opinion on art controversy generally?
CÉSAR: I’ve been asked many times recently what I think about the Forever Marilyn situation and I’ll say to you what I’ve said to others—I don’t want to think about it much. I’ve just worked on a project that required various conversations with local elected officials about contemporary art installations in public space and based on my experience, the Marilyn situation is not surprising at all. There is a very real and necessary course correct that needs to happen across the Valley when it comes to defining the relationship of local governments to public art programs and it would serve the constituents of desert cities well to have local governments look at models of other places that have build thriving models for civic art that are rooted in inclusion, diversity, equity, and most importantly meaningful engagement with communities. Art provokes controversy, specially when it leaves the safety of the white gallery walls, but there are productive ways to mobilize those controversies in the service of people who have to live with these works, who have to see themselves represented in them. I don’t think Forever Marilyn is productive or beneficial to people who will have to live with it. I’ll leave you with one thing to consider. Over the past year cities across the country have been re-imaginging public art and its function as a kind of memorial. In front of Palm Springs City Hall, there is a sculpture that celebrates a former mayor whose actions inflicted violence against many historically marginalized people here. I’d like to see the same enthusiasm from those who want the Marilyn sculpture installed channeled into considering a replacement for this statue. What does this situation say about this city? About a place that wants to memorialize a history of Hollywood glamour through a Marilyn sculpture but is unwilling to put the same efforts into removing a work that triggers difficult pasts for many of its citizens?
GDG: What is next for you? Is The Mistake Room in LA about to reopen?
CÉSAR: We’re opening the Mistake Room again in the Fall, but we are actually resuming our program the weekend of May 7th with three major public projects. So we’re taking art out of the gallery space and bringing it to diverse communities across the city. We’ve had to be closed for more than a year like other cultural institutions in Los Angeles and my team and I have been thinking a lot about what it means to re-open and what we should re-open with. So before we resume exhibitions in our space, we’re going to take some time to do programs that give us a moment to pause, to grief together, to collectively begin to heal. We are presenting 3 projects that speak to this. The first is a monumental floral installation/altar by Classroom of Compassion that will memorialize all those we’ve lost to COVID-19 in LA and people will have an opportunity to submit photos of loved ones they’ve lost to include in an in memoriam video that will be projected in the center of the installation. We’re also working on a major project with Detroit-based artist Gisela McDaniel that will transform The Mistake Room’s facade into one of her textured paintings of women who’ve survived experiences of violence exacerbated during the pandemic. The last project is with Crenshaw Dairy Mart (Alexandre Dorriz, Patrisse Cullors, and noé olivas) who will turn a 1967 truck into a rolling social sculpture that will deliver food and art kits to communities disproportionally affected by the pandemic. The trio of projects is part of Art Rise, which is a component of We Rise 2021. Independently from TMR I’m also curating the second installment of the Armory Show’s virtual exhibitions and mine will explore the work of a new generation of Latinx artists working across the US.
Thirteen art installations by cutting edge, artists from around the world are in locations throughout the Coachella Valley for the duration of Desert X 21. The last day is May 16. Visit desertx.org for more information on the artists, their exhibits, and where to find them. You can learn more about The Mistake Room (TMR) located in DTLA by visiting tmr.la. A big thank you to César for taking some time for us.