The politics of space—who can be where and under what conditions—comes into sharp focus in the art of Ginger Q. Born in Guadalajara and raised in Los Angeles among the neon and metalsmithing workshops neighboring her father’s screenprinting business, Ginger brings the DIY ethos of the neon mentors of her childhood to her own practice. A CalArts graduate and designer by day, her command of craft—meticulous, expressive, and blisteringly beautiful—is matched with a critical take on the nuances of place and identity. Her artwork frequently finds form as flames, bodies, or deconstructed vehicles. Here she shares with Garagisme some recent preoccupations: a refurbished 1997 Toyota Tacoma, the entrenched class divide of LA’s public transport system, and strategies for replacing the patriarchal status quo with new models for success.
Two of your most recent works, Antibodies (2019) and Anti-Axiom (2019), transcend the genres of performance, craft, and video, calling into question who belongs where, when. How do they connect with and fit into your practice as a whole?
Both Antibodies and Anti-Axiom ask who is allowed to be in which spaces, and what is expected, accepted, and normalized within those spaces. Antibodies explores the defense mechanism of the human immune system in reaction to a virus. The neon bodies represent the plastic personas we put on to try to blend in and be a successful part of society. We took this idea and made a performance, showing how these false personas unconsciously weigh us down before we even interact with someone else. They create a barrier—a weight we carry internally as we try to navigate society. Antibodies is essentially saying: I don’t need to hide or make myself less to make other people comfortable.
The idea is similar for Anti-Axiom, which started from the feeling that if I’m not meant to be here, I’m going to dial it all the way up and be 100 percent present. The refurbished 1997 Toyota Tacoma provides the actual vessel for transportation—a vehicle to finally escape the heavy societal pressures we experience.
Which societal pressures in particular?
Internalized racism and internalized sexism. These concepts are taught us as we’re growing up and as we’re told to accept certain values as being true without questioning them. You grow up intrinsically thinking that you’re less, that you’re an impostor, that you’re not good enough. You navigate the world and don’t understand why you’re feeling these things. It’s almost like the Antibodies sequence was about an internal detox from a psychic virus—the voices that tell us, You’re not going to succeed. By not seeing ourselves [womxn, people of color] represented, we come to believe that we are not supposed to be in these environments.
These are all just things I’m trying to navigate. It’s about unlearning. I understand now that they’re not true, but it doesn’t mean those thoughts don’t seep back in occasionally. The weirdest way it can come out is as anxiety: maybe you’re more anxious than someone else who is used to being there; maybe it’s confidence you feel like you’re lacking, and you’re trying to understand where that’s coming from. It’s about accepting yourself and saying: “This is me. You can accept me or not, but I’m still going to be me.” [Laughs]
Anti-Axiom revolves around a 1997 Toyota Tacoma, a truck that in Los Angeles is conventionally driven by working-class Latino men and is associated with macho culture. Your performance flips that symbolism around: Why the Tacoma, and what was the intention behind its transformation?
I can only speak for L.A., but here you often see the Tacoma on the freeway and it’s always packed with shit, full of these makeshift containers. You’re always scared to drive behind one of those trucks because they pile up stuff—recycling or building materials—and it never really looks secure. I got my Toyota Tacoma from my uncle, and I’ve used it in that way too, as a vehicle to transfer my materials for signage around the city.
Every time I get into the car, everyone’s like, “Is that your car? [laughs] Are you driving that truck?” They’re so confused. Hearing those comments made me think: “Why is this so weird for me to drive?” I grew up in and around a signage company run by my dad and brothers, and I’m usually the only womxn working in that environment. There are always comments here and there. Hispanic cultures can be very sexist. Even with me being there, they’re like, “What?” They’re confused that I’m interested in these things.
It shouldn’t be out of the ordinary, it shouldn’t cause uncomfortable feelings. But I think that because of those uncomfortable feelings, women tend to stay away from these environments as they don’t feel welcome. With this truck, I wanted to create a piece that obstructs the iconography of what we’re used to seeing in these spaces and who is welcomed. I wanted to create a vessel of light that says: “I’m allowed to be here. And if it’s going to bother you, if I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb anyway, then I might as well do it up.”
You created that “vessel of light” by refurbishing the Tacoma with a metallic wrap and blue neon flames. Craft, in particular neon and metal craft, has become integral to your practice. How did these come to be your signature materials?
My experience with neon begins with my dad, who is a screenprinter and a sign maker. I grew up in his shop, which was situated in a bunch of studios, all with different craftspeoplemen. It was all production-based, and very technical. Clients would come in with a design, then a craftsperson would realize their vision. For a long time, I separated my art from commercial production. It was only when I started doing metalsmithing and larger installations that I was like: “Wait, why am I trying to separate these two aspects of myself? I should be merging them together because there is something interesting in these kinds of techniques and processes.”
Part of the reason why I separated them is because I’m a first-generation immigrant child. For my parents, making art was a waste of time. It didn’t seem like something we were allowed to do because we had to make money. Later on, when I went to college [CalArts] and started exploring my own practice, coming back to L.A. and rekindling my childhood mentor relationships, I started diving deeper. My brother has a signage company too, and we started working together. If I got a project that I didn’t necessarily know how to make, I would just figure out how to make it. I took each new technique that I learned from these projects, and put it in the inventory of my materials and practices. I feel connected to metal, neon, and plastic because they are all very static, sturdy, and stiff materials, which when heated can be bent and warped and transformed.
In which directions can you see your work with these materials, and with vehicles in general, evolving?
Art is typically nonfunctional. It’s not meant to be used in the context it was created for. I’m trying to challenge that in-between the functional and the nonfunctional vehicle because in my work, the actual function of the vehicle is important. If the driver can move forward, the vehicle can take you places. Specifically, my truck helps me create works, it helps me in my practice. I would like to keep exploring this kind of momentum and motion.
I’ve been looking into the concept of momentum without actually driving a car, what that would look and feel like. I’ve also been thinking about deconstruction, exploring how much I can take a car apart before it doesn’t work. The nonfunctional car is symbolic of my childhood, because we always had cars that were breaking down that we would fix, DIY-style. I think that’s why I became interested in cars in general, because if my car broke down, I wanted to know how to fix it.
What’s your favorite context to drive in?
My favorite time to drive is in the middle of the night because there’s no traffic, but all the lights are on. I love to blast music and just drive—it feels so free. I love driving because it allows you to experience things that you couldn’t if you didn’t have a vehicle. Especially if you’re from a neighborhood or community where you’re not generally exposed to something, it can open up a new network for you. I used to take the bus to CalArts, and I remember being limited by that.
In L.A., the bus system is pretty shit. It’s very limiting and because of that, a lot of people who take the bus are lower income. This creates a sense of economic separation, which dictates who’s allowed where. At the same time there are petitions against building a metro stop in Beverly Hills, for example, which separates who’s allowed in, who can come across things, where you’re navigated towards. The freedom of having a car allows you to transgress those barriers.
On the topic of who’s allowed where in L.A., what’s your take on the nexus between the art scene and gentrification, in light of tensions that have arisen as galleries move in and displace communities, like in Boyle Heights, for example?
The conversation around gentrification asks “Who’s your audience?” You’re creating these galleries in places that are already full of people and culture, and then you exclude the entire existing community and try to bring in a new community. Some underground galleries are having that conversation, but then there’s also the inner conflict of being an artist, asking, “Where are you and your career in all of this?” I think many artists are having that debate within themselves. To excel as an artist, you have to go through these galleries and gallerists.
I think it’s important to really research who you are getting involved with, because things don’t always come out at face value. You might not even know who you’re associating yourself with, so you have to step around cautiously and investigate a little further. At the same time, you can’t just ignore that on the whole, institutions control the art world. All those institutionalized stepping stones are gatekeepers to showing your work. Personally, the internal fight is around how to be part of that, while not excluding people from your own community.
What are your thoughts on how to create spaces that allow artists the freedom to set their own standards for success?
One way would be to start your own gallery [laughs]. I do have a lot of friends who are starting their own galleries and trying to pave the way through curation and being conscious of who they include in their shows. One easy way to do that is to make it free and accessible and open to all. Where are you promoting these shows? Is everything being outsourced?
Equally at the point of making a work, deciding who you collaborate with allows you to create your own rules.
One example of that was when I was working [on a creative residency] with [the ad agency] 72andSunny in 2018. [The resulting project was a public sculpture exhibited at Venice Beach titled “14,000 and Counting Missing Childhoods,” created as a call for policy change on the detention of immigrant children in the US.] I was doing most of the elements myself, including the production. When they asked me to find people to construct [the sculpture], I thought, “This is about how immigrants are being attacked, about detention centers. It’s really important that everyone who works on this be connected to the issue.
Everyone I hired was a craftsperson who I had worked with when I was growing up. They were all immigrants. I don’t think the agency would have hired these people if someone wasn’t actively asking, “What is their relationship to this issue?” It felt so important not to simply talk around an issue, but to include people from within that community, in order to create something that ignites a societal conversation.