Culture as Collective: An Interview with Abraham Velázquez Tello
Abraham Velázquez Tello discusses Latino culture in Chicago, screen printing and his ongoing photography project, Machos.
I recently sat down with a fellow Chicago Art Department member, Abraham Velázquez Tello, who has been a very busy man lately with projects like his year-old website, Gozamos, which spotlights Latino culture in Chicago, and the brand spanking new screen printing studio he built with Jason Frohlichstein within the Chicago Art Department communal studio space on W. Hubbard. We talked about his ongoing photography project, Machos, which examines machismo culture within the Latino community in Chicago and we discussed the role of technology in art scenes and the larger cultural climate in Chicago.
Jennifer Nalbantyan: When did you move to Chicago and what brought you here?
Abraham Velázquez Tello: I was born and raised in Mexico City but after my parents got divorced, my mom and I came here when I was 5 years old. I moved back and forth a lot from here to Mexico City. From about junior high and high school on, I grew up in the south suburbs.
JN: What made you first interested in art – is there a moment or experience that made you want to have a creative practice?
AVT: It was all through high school. Right away, in my first year of high school I took an intro to art class and I did a whole bunch of stuff on my own before that, but that officially solidified it for me. I took every single art class – a couple of them even twice. I did photography, did some printmaking and some painting. Photography was the thing that I got into right away. I found one of my teacher’s old enlargers and I went and bought a camera. I always thought that I wanted to get into design too because I was such a geeky kid. If I wasn’t ditching classes to go print in the photo lab, I was ditching them to go be in the computer lab – so it made sense to go to Columbia College.
JN: What did you study at Columbia College?
AVT: I got two BFA’s – one in graphic design and one in photography. The whole time I was there, I was working almost full time at a small IT consulting company. I quickly learned the ins and outs. Because I picked up a lot of the code on my own they put me in front of clients and I started building websites for clients. So, I did design work and also coding. As soon as I got out of Columbia, I met some people at Digitas—that’s an ad agency and they offered me a developer position. But what’s interesting about development and design is that it’s hard to find a designer that understands code and a coder that understands design, so it’s really good to have both backgrounds. Right away I fit into the creative team as a developer. I was there for a couple years and in the summer I started at Critical Mass as a developer. I enjoy coding because it’s about learning and constantly changing. And especially now, there’s so much stuff with Facebook, you know, they will change something and you have to go find it on their blog post, figure out what they changed and fix it. So every single day it’s a learning process and it just builds and builds.
JN: Tell me about how you got involved with CAD [Chicago Art Department].
AVT: CAD is random. I was living in Pilsen, I needed to move. I met Nathan [Peck] through Craigslist. Right away he showed me the gallery—I had been to the art walks—but at that point I was like, how can I be part of this. Eventually I had a first show at the gallery with a couple friends. But also, I always wanted to screen print – I had taken a class at Columbia. I tried doing that in our attic when we were all living together, but that wasn’t going to work out. So, I started looking out for studio spaces and got some people interested in the idea of a communal studio space. A year and a half ago we found this space and it’s a great model because you get people who all pay collectively for cubicle space, plus there’s tons of open space where people can hang out and we just sustain ourselves. I don’t think I’ve seen a better model for collaboration.
JN: Now that you have so many endeavors and a 9 to 5, do you have time for your own practice?
AVT: Right now, no. My most successful project was part of my thesis at Columbia and I actually got a scholarship to continue it outside of Columbia, so I did that for a year. It was based around photographing and documenting machismo culture here in Chicago.
JN: Yeah, I’ve read that you’re interested in gender issues within the Latino community in Chicago. Can you tell me more about this project?
AVT: Yeah, I can show you the book I put together for that project. It’s called Machos and I got a Wiseman scholarship which helped pay for some of the materials to piece it together—all the rolls of film. It involved a lot of research and there was a huge paper attached to it. But the majority of it was photographing, mostly with 2 ¼ square film, and then printing them in a darkroom—and then of course scanned and pieced together for the book. These photos were taken all throughout Chicago over about two and half years and I have about 300 rolls of film.
JN: [Flipping through Machismo and pointing to a picture of a rodeo scene] Where was this taken?
AVT: That was taken at a rodeo joint over by the prison on 26th and California. There are wrestler groups here in Chicago—luchadores. I actually went and followed one, went to their practices and hung out with them. There’s a group of low rider guys that I got to meet and know, so I followed them. There’s a group of dancers – the Quebradita Dancers—you know, where literally there are 12-yr-old girls getting spun up and down. Just seeing all these physical actions and how they relate to neo-machismo is a really fascinating thing for me.
JN: What is neo-machismo?
AVT: Well, on the one hand, it’s always been like, I’ve got my cowboy boots and I’m drinking my tequila, you know, stereotypical Mexican-ness. But then we have all of these subcultures – between low riders, between wrestlers, between gay night clubs, between Aztec dancers. So there’s a wide variety of things. And as much as we say that we respect women, we still find that, frankly, men still dominate certain areas. It’s not very common to find a woman who owns her own low rider car. So, it’s about looking at what hasn’t caught up—what are men still dominating and how does that relate back into the culture. Because, as a kid growing up, how are you inheriting those things? For me, being raised by a single mother, I didn’t have those kinds of things ingrained in me, but more than anything I’m trying to analyze how these issues are still playing out in our culture today. And I hope to continue it and go to graduate school for it one day and do a lot more photographing.
JN: So, if you did that, would you still primarily use photography as a medium?
AVT: Probably. And I’ve done a series of screen prints just to kind of mess around and touch on it. With photography, of course, you are the curator—you’re the person taking the shot and cropping everything else out of the world, which reflects your own point of view. But at the same time, I really enjoyed meeting different people and capturing what they thought was interesting.
JN: What is Tripa Colectivo?
AVT: So, tripa means intestine, gut. Literally translates to Gut Collective. Tripa was happening while this project [Machos] was in the works and this was one of the projects around that. I met a good friend, Jova Duran, who ran Beer Run Gallery and he was part of it. He recently moved out to Miami to follow the art scene there. And Mike Wilgus who’s part of CAD and a really dope illustrator. We did one show a year for a few years where it was all-out mural work, a lot of graffiti, a lot of photography, a variety of different things all analyzing Latino culture and art. So that’s what Tripa was all about.
JN: I know a lot of your energy of late has been spent on your newest venture – Gozamos. Can you tell me what made you want to start this website? Do you see this continuing to be your focus?
AVT: Right now it is. I’m really fascinated by the idea of technology and how culture plays into that—that’s what new media is about right now. Gozamos launched March 22nd of last year so we’re almost a year old. We have five different editors, one per section—for art and entertainment, lifestyle, food and drink, tu cultura which covers a lot of personal op-ed and immigration, political-type issues. And music as well, which is really successful. There’s so much out there in terms of Chicago culture that is never covered by a lot of venues and outlets. I think one of the best things we did is when we covered Lollapalooza. There was a Venezuelan band and a Mexico City DJ group and nobody wrote about them, but we did. And they were given the worst time slots but we were there and we interviewed them. It was all about uncovering some of the really good stuff that frankly is ginormous in other countries and there are so many people here that are in need of that. It’s always been about culture– everything from Pilsen to Little Village to Logan Square and Humboldt Park and just covering those areas that don’t really have a lot of media, but also doing it in an efficient way that is all online and very low cost so we can just focus on letting cool people show off the cool things they do.
JN: I was at the Art Rock and Talk event that you were involved with last Friday at CAD. Where did get the idea for this event? Does music influence your art practice?
AVT: I actually I can’t take any credit for that. That was a really talented person, her name is Caiti Stout and she was at Columbia studying arts music management. She took one of our screen printing classes and had a brilliant idea of what she wanted to do. I remember having a chat online with Caiti and I was like, “Dude, what do you want to do with your life?” [laughs]. Like very frank, you know. And she was like, you know, I really want to throw a [music] show but in a gallery and have art up on the walls and have it be really casual. She said to me, I’ve done a lot of shows at Empty Bottle and places like that but never around this art conversation and I like that about CAD. And I said, just do it, throw a show! So she found some awesome local musicians and we put together some art from our screen printing classes and she had this idea that she wanted to let people be able to print their own gig posters, so we had the screen printing set up for that.
That’s one of the cool things about CAD, you know, if somebody just wants to hustle and do their own thing, it’s just about giving them resources and telling them that they can do it and sometimes giving them a kick in the butt.
JN: What do you think is missing from the art conversation in Chicago? What is something you wish that people would talk more about?
AVT: I think Chicago as a whole suffers this middle kid mentality of the problem child that can’t get their shit together. That stereotypical Marcia Brady type thing. But yeah, we’re literally in the middle, between New York and the West coast and not just in art but also in technology we’re way behind. There’s so much potential here in the city. And you can’t blame the cold because New York is cold as shit too.
JN: So what exactly do you think is missing?
AVT: I think it’s just the idea that we’re not striving to be the best. It’s disappointing to me because I appreciate the landscape of the city – the north and south dynamic and its history. It seems like either we don’t strive or whenever we do succeed, then we up and leave and go to New York or somewhere else. San Francisco has been coming up and Miami has an awesome art scene. You know, even Austin is bad-ass too — their art scene is popping right now. I’m going to South by Southwest this year and I’ve been talking to my friends. I’ve told them, if you want to make a new media publication then you need to be at South By because that’s where everybody’s talking about new media publications—Gawker and Gadget and AOL and Huffington Post –all of those people that came out of New York and L.A.
JN: Do you think the success of an art scene is intrinsically tied to technology?
AVT: Oh yeah. I mean, more so it’s that art and technology belong to this whole thing called culture. It’s more about culture and society, and technology is simply a tool for that right now. Art is simply the output of that culture. That’s one of the reasons I think Gozamos is interesting to me because we get to cover all these different aspects. Because we need figure out what’s going on and surface that. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that nobody knows about.
JN: Who else in Chicago do you think is doing a good job hustling in terms of the art scene?
AVT: I’m sure you’ve heard of The Post Family guys. I went to school with a couple of them. Everything they stand for and do—from art making to their blog to just the business model that they’ve developed. They’re a sharp group of guys and are doing cool stuff. People like that stand out to me. Nobody’s going to put us on the map but ourselves. I think one of the most interesting things about CAD and The Post Family and a bunch of other people is the whole idea of the collective. How do we somehow raise each other up and, frankly, put each other in check—to be able to say, you know, your work is not that great but it can be really good and how do you elevate that to a whole new level.
JN: Do you see yourself doing more teaching in the future?
AVT: Yeah, I mean teaching the screen printing classes has been a lot of fun and teaching WordPress classes that I did a little while ago was a lot of fun. In the summer, I’m actually trying to put together a tech program with Radio Arte, which is a small hyper-local radio station that’s part of the Mexican Fine Arts Museum. It’s about giving after school education to high school and college level students to get quality skills. A good example is 37 signals. 37 Signals is a company that started out as a design shop but then developed a framework called Ruby on Rails. A lot of sites are built on it like Groupon. But the thing is, it gets fostered on the north side and either it stays on the north side of Chicago or it moves out to San Francisco and nothing ever happens.
And even worse, nothing ever happens on the south side of Chicago where there are so many people, so many minorities who don’t have access to those kinds of resources and education. That stuff you can’t learn at a university—it’s not their fault, the pace is just too quick. So to be able to teach people the technology side of whatever they’re trying to do and teach them to think in this kind of fast paced way—somebody who has a journalism background or an art and design background, then suddenly they have more tools and can really hit the ground running.