Making and pacing rest: Alex Dolores Salerno investigates queer-crip temporality

Making and pacing rest: Alex Dolores Salerno investigates queer-crip temporality

A multi-module exhibition designed for virtual consumption, Indisposable: Structures of Support After the Americans with Disabilities Act, curated by Jessica Cooley and Ann Fox for the Ford Foundation Gallery, interrogates accessibility in the art world today, drawing together leading scholars, artists, and writers, in conversation and curated over Zoom. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA) Chapter 1 debuted the newest work of interdisciplinary artist Alex Dolores SalernoEl Dios Acostado, a film set in the small towns of Vilcabamba and San Pedro de la Bendita, in Southern Ecuador.

The artist’s mother grew up in San Pedro de la Bendita, near Vilcabamba and its defining mountain, Mandango, or “The Sleeping God.” The valley nestled below this mountain was made famous by a variety of gerontological studies in the 20th century, as well as a notable National Geographic cover story. During the 70s, many European and American scientists explored the region known for producing individuals who lived well over age 100, and gave the town the name “the valley of longevity”. These interventions, while putting Vilcabamba on the map for many, led to an influx of parasitic-tourism: wealthy European and Americans, often retirees who call themselves “expats”, looking for longer life, youth, and cures to illnesses. The newcomers’ presence and their ideas of productivity and extraction brought about profound change to the site historically considered a sacred land of rest.

Visiting San Pedro de la Bendita with their partner, Salerno directed a short film focused on only three scenes, marching along at a “pace of rest” that facilitated multiple levels of accessibility for a variety of possible disabled audiences. The three frames were filmed as settled stationary images of a man in repose before the mountain, a cemetery, and a rooftop townscape. From narration in both Spanish and English (voiced by the artist’s own mother and partner, Echo) to bilingual subtitles and descriptions of scenes and landscapes, Salerno is attuned to a variety of ways in which traditional video art can exclude audiences with audio or visual impairments, and argues that accessibility is both an exciting and necessary part of the making process.

After the airing of Chapter 1, I caught up with artist Alex Dolores Salerno about their work, career, and the new film, El Dios Acostado.  

Emily Conklin: How did you come to filmmaking, and how was this work been informed by your heritage and personal experience?

Alex Dolores Salerno: Through themes of care, interdependency, and queer-crip temporality, in my interdisciplinary practice I work to critique standards of productivity and the commodification of our rest time. My practice argues that to celebrate different bodyminds necessitates are configuration of value and our relationship to time on a capitalist agenda.  

Unfortunately capitalism values us based on our capacity to work as self-reliant individuals despite the ways that we are all interdependent and reliant on care. My new film, El Dios Acostado was a new direction for me in terms of medium and aesthetics, but at the same time has been a natural progression in my practice. I have been working, primarily in sculpture and photography, with the bed and bedding materials as a site of creation, protest, and mutual aid, so my interest in the power of rest and collectivity allowed me to begin this work by shifting the sleeping figure from the bed onto a sacred land of rest. The first step in creating the film was taking a nap in front of a mountain named Mandango which translates to “The Sleeping God” or “El Dios Acostado”. Due to my physical and mental conditions, rest is something I often feel I have to fight for, and this work was very much informed by the necessity of rest and what the land has to teach us about slowing down.

 EC: Did you initially approach filmmaking as a space for exploration of accessibility or did your accessibility work evolve over the course of your filmmaking practice?

ADS: Regardless of medium, access is both necessary and an exciting rich material to work with. Whether it’s architecture, a social event, or an art piece, access shouldn’t be an afterthought. The elements of access in El Dios Acostado evolved as the film evolved since they aren’t separate things.

EC: Why did you choose to alternate between narrators with and without accents in their non-native languages? Does the phenomenon of the linguistic accent play into access in your art? 

ADS: This was something very simple for me. I wanted my mother, a narrator in the film, to speak for herself. She first spoke in Spanish and then translated herself by repeating her words in English. I spoke the English visual descriptions as a way to be in dialogue with my mother, but because my Spanish isn’t great I asked my partner and collaborator Echo to say them in Spanish (he also was the one sleeping in front of Mandango). So there are different levels of accents simply because I wanted these people to have their voices in the film, and to honor all the ways we come into language and have the multiplicity of sound and accents be a beautiful thing. 

Film still from El Dios Acostado, video by Alex Dolores Salerno. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Film still from El Dios Acostado, video by Alex Dolores Salerno. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Film still from El Dios Acostado, video by Alex Dolores Salerno. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

EC: Are you able to engage in your community as an or with other activists, in the space of accessibility or others?

ADS: I think the word activist gets thrown around a bit too much and too easily. Marginalized artists often get labeled as activists simply for making work about our existence. This expectation to educate is always placed on the shoulders of those who are marginalized and limits the ability to simply be. I consider speaking out on social issues inside or outside of art making to be the bare minimum. I’m not sure there even is an outside of artmaking for me since the labor of living is part of the creative practice. We should always be working towards and dreaming new worlds, and honoring our various needs, capacities, and mutual aid practices. For me part of this means to understand care in my everyday life as a form of protest. I’d love to share with you a quote from Johanna Hedva’s essay “Sick Woman Theory” that beautifully makes clear the entanglement between care and protest.

“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care. Because, once we are all ill and confined to the bed, sharing our stories of therapies and comforts, forming support groups, bearing witness to each other’s tales of trauma, prioritizing the care and love of our sick, pained, expensive, sensitive, fantastic bodies, and there is no one left to go to work, perhaps then, finally, capitalism will screech to its much-needed, long-overdue, and motherfucking glorious halt.”

EC: What’s next for you?‍

ADS: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a couple of my upcoming shows have shifted from being physical to virtual shows. Of course there is some disappointment around not being able to experience work in-person, but also the creation of new accessible formats for engaging with work is exciting and necessary. I’m part of the current cohort of the Art and Disability Residency that’s run by Art Beyond Sight and we’ll be working with The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation’s 8th Floor Gallery in Manhattan: Our virtual exhibition, titled Support Structures, will be released December 3.

I’m also excited to be working on a new piece extending from previous work using industrial diamond plate rubber flooring. This rubber flooring is used in a ton of ways and places but generally connotes industrial workspaces and used to stabilize spaces of fast paced movement. I’m exploring that juxtaposition with bedding materials.

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