The flowers now live in bedrooms, or on dining room tables. Perhaps some are on a mantle-piece somewhere while others have found their way onto the steps of porches or were perhaps replanted directly into people’s gardens. Mine is inside my parent’s house in San Antonio, Texas, surviving like a memory.
The plants come from artist Patty Ortiz’s recent performance of her series “Work Won’t Kill You (WWKY): I Am Here,” in which she documents the stories of ten involuntary child immigrants to the United States. The entirety of the WWKY series, parts of which have been showcased throughout the United States, seeks to usurp the inflexible capitalistic structures often guiding the way we think about work and productivity.
“I Am Here” debuted at the Luminaria Arts Festival in San Antonio, Texas on 9-11 November of this past year. As part of her ongoing desire to unsettle the idea of a productive market labor, Ortiz employed ten young (all under 30), undocumented DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients who were willing to share their experiences by providing oral testimonies while also performing during the installation’s debut on 10 November. From her conversation with the young participants Ortiz constructed a video montage of their testimonies that included scenes of a plant being ripped from its roots. To accompany the performance on opening night, the performers and Ortiz also planted three hundred small plants, placing one tiny light inside of each pot that they then inscribed with the words “Take care of me/us.”
Unlike a museum, where individuals choose to enter and thus willingly becoming part of the artistic audience, Ortiz’s “I Am Here” (and most of Luminaria) took place outdoors where hundreds of often-unassuming tourists and city-folk, with no idea of the festival’s presence, were forced to confront the performance and become witnesses to the testimonies they heard. During the performance, set on a well-traversed corner of San Antonio’s touristy Riverwalk, the three hundred plants were placed on the ground, while Ortiz’s video montage of a floral landscape was projected on a giant screen positioned above the potted plants. The only sounds heard by the audience were the loud voices of the verbal testimonies given by DACA recipients to Ortiz days prior to the performance.
In complete silence, the performers navigated around the plants, from 7pm to midnight. Tiny lights, similar to the minute LED lights they placed in each one of the three hundred plants days’ prior, lit up their camouflage gear, a wardrobe loudly proclaiming an alternative version of war centered on producing visibility. Everything was dark except for the shining lighted pots, the performers, and the video montage projected above the gathering audience. The performance’s determination to force the audience into darkness and illuminate the performers whose testimonies filled the background soundscape bestowed radical visibility upon the ten young individuals whose undocumented status often force them into legal and social obscurity.
The performers spent hours rearranging the pots randomly, tending to them, and once in a while deciding to walk into the audience to hand them out. The performers were always seen as busy, always “working,” productively unproductive, in the dignified way that Ortiz often conceptualizes work as play. Some broke their silence while handing out plants, asking particular audience members if they would “Take care of me/us,” and handing them a plant only when they heard a “yes” erupt from their lips.
Members of the audience, in effect, became witnesses to these voices and to their physical bodies as they gently, yet steadfastly, shuffled around the plants. Moreover, as the performers stepped into the audience with their plant offering they, quite literally, shed light on an individual’s status as a witness. At this point in time, it is safe to say that witnessing injustice isn’t enough to foster sociopolitical change. Yet, can performance potentialize an ethical transformation of some kind in the mind of the observer in ways that other forms of cultural production cannot?
What Ortiz’s installation did so successfully was ground itself upon the simple act of exchange between performer and audience member: the potted plant. Ortiz beautifully inverts the system of production by giving the audience a gift. This gift, however, makes the audience responsible for something post-performance. The responsibility of walking for miles around the Riverwalk with a plant in your hand, of getting asked questions about the plant, of then getting home and figuring out where the plant goes, and how much water it needs to survive. If you are traveling, as I was, then the responsibility of figuring out what to do with the plant and who will take care of it starts weighing on you. The plant becomes something like a memory of both what you witnessed and, more importantly, of the promise you made to the young person who asked you if you would take care of them.
Thinking of performance art as an easily codified object is impossible and, quite honestly, unfair. Performance is transitory and constantly shifting by nature. It’s what makes it so powerful. Yet, performance is also inherently radical because it transforms city-spaces into productive canvases for witnessing by generating awareness. “WWKY: I Am Here” illuminates more than the life of undocumented child migrants. It also illuminates a history of San Antonio as a colonial space, not as a city “with a rich Hispanic tradition”, as many continue to call it, but as a city that spent half of its three hundred years (which Luminaria celebrated) under Spanish and Mexican rule.
In making art forcibly public, interactions between individuals holding deeply contrasting political beliefs (this was Texas after all) were encouraged through the framework of empathetic and responsible witnessing that Ortiz’s performance evoked. Ortiz, who stood by her work the entire time, told me that one man came to the work several times during Saturday’s debut. Initially frustrated by the so-called “propaganda” it portrayed, after speaking with Ortiz and several observers, and after watching the performance in its entirety, he “changed his mind about all this DACA stuff.” Sure, small steps. But small steps are the start of something radical. Artists such as Patty Ortiz and festivals like Luminaria remind us of how powerful art can be in evoking responsible empathy. The real measure of productivity should be how we can use these cultural products to change the societal misperceptions contaminating our world.
Irina Popescu is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Latin American Studies at Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts college in Maine. Her research investigates the intersections between cultural production and legal framework of human rights discourse in the Americas, particularly focusing on the rights of women, migrants, and excluded communities.
Thank you to Patty Ortiz for allowing us to use images of the event.