Andrea Noble argues in her essay “Visual Culture and Latin American Studies” that modern visual cultural studies are characterized by a strong Euroamerican-centric perspective. Although the collective “visual turn” of various disciplines are valorized as a method of grappling with a context of globalized image production and circulation, in reality, visual culture remains, in her words, “a discourse of the West about the West” (225). Noble argues that visual culture, without examining its own epistemological and discursive roots in histories of slavery and colonialism, runs the risk of repeating colonial assumptions about the properties of the visual image. For instance, in the colonial context, the hegemony of the written word – in many respects a privatized notion of knowledge production – worked to deny other systems of knowledge production, including pictorial and oral transmission. Euroamerican visual cultural studies tend to uphold the visual image as a new and exciting source for identifying and articulating relations of power, without understanding that the very appearance of newness s an effect of the centuries-long suppression of alternative (visual) modes of knowledge production. Moreover, visual culture studies can only be seen as a deviation from a more established track of textual analysis/exegesis insofar as one disregards the density of colonial imageries invented to normalize colonial relations of rule. Many of these explicitly racist imageries mobilized depictions of gender and sexual pathology to shuttle the colonized other outside the order of the human. Thus to conduct a historically-minded visual cultural studies means returning to this colonial visual archive and colonial suppressions of alternative visualities. This might include an examination of what Anne McClintock calls the “commodity racism” of Victorian-era British advertising strategies, whose racist and imperial imageries folded an overseas project of conquest (disguised as humanistic rehabilitation through the imposition of the commodity form) into the British domestic sphere.
The perspective offered by Latin American and Central American diasporic cultural production is one that, according to Kency Cornejo, exposes the coloniality of various imaging strategies (including photography) and the dominant visualities that seek to wipe out or erase various subjectivities altogether (the migrant, the undocumented, the disappeared, etc.). As Cornejo writes, Central American-Americans are multiply marginalized by “the contradictory push-pull of a country that forces migration and benefits from migrants’ cheap labor, yet criminalizes and dehumanizes their very beings so as to reject and evict them” (197). An oppositional visual cultural studies might attend not only to the imageries that consolidate racist anti-migrant sentiment in the US, but also the visual strategies forged in response to contradicory attributions of “wantedness” (for labor) and “unwantedness” (as citizens).
One artist I know who responds to this dominant visuality is Yoshua Okon, whose work Octopus (2011) is a two-channel video piece for which he hired Guatemalan Mayan immigrants living in Los Angeles to reproduce guerrilla warfare movements inside the parking lot of a Home Depot. The piece offers an alternative retelling of the Guatemalan Civil War, with the actors engaging in role-play of their former positions as military and guerrilla fighters. In various short sequences, the migrant workers duck, crawl, and hide amid a suburban landscape of asphalt and SUVs, wielding invisible firearms and pretending to shoot at invisible targets. In one scene, a worker shimmies his way under a pickup truck; the two channels offer opposing perspectives of him as he crawls along the asphalt using only his shoulder muscles. The piece has no added sound or visual effects: the rattle of shopping carts, the hum of cars weaving their way through the parking lot, and the mumbling confusion of white shoppers unsure how to read the situation – all of these supplement as well as complicate the lack of apparent violence in the video. The parking lot functions less as a stage for the piece than the conditions of its production: the Guatemalan actors are in fact day laborers, who congregate outside the Home Depot daily, looking for work.
Octopus (“El Pulpo”) takes its name from the Guatemalan nickname for United Fruit, a US-based corporate fruit company that cooperated with the Guatemalan military to exploit agricultural laborers, many of them indigenous Mayans. Mirroring Corejo’s claim that “US intervention and neoliberal policies in the region [of Central America] are a continuity of the legacy of coloniality” (194), the Civil War began as a fight for the continuation of land and labor reforms, in response to a US-aided and -abetted right-wing government inflicting violence on a marginalized population. Okon’s piece indicts US capitalist, interventionist, and neocolonial involvement in precipitating the catastrophic war. By visually enmeshing the war’s human toll within the confines and racial stratifications of the contemporary US workforce, Okon translocates the violent conflict of the Civil War to contemporary Los Angeles, where many refugees from the conflict (and their children) now live. He lets the former guerrilla soldiers reproduce their own roles – albeit in casual, contemporary dress and geographically displaced from the original site of conflict. Through the preprogrammed motions of the laborer-as-performer, a virtual battleground is imposed on his surroundings, despite the fact that these procedures are emptied of conventional items like weapons, costumes, or vehicles. Octopus makes an event not out of a reenacted conflict, but instead through the deeply internalized gestures of former fighters, recoded as procedures of subsistence and survival. The motor memory of Mayan Guatemalan day laborers, themselves violently displaced, and the historical patterns of violence embedded in their very joints, evidences the persistence of that violence into the invisibilized sphere of uninsured California wage labor.