Responding to the work of Efraín Rozas.
In this issue of VAPor where we explore the intersection of art and technology, Peruvian performer, composer, and robotics/ software developer Efraín Rozas is featured. A personal, experimental and performative response to both his work and our stimulating conversation can be found below in an interactive ecosystem. This presentation can be experienced in a non-linear, and freely navigable manner which is symbolically empathetic to Rozas’ research and philosophy. The experience responds to and repeats questions posed by Rozas, reflecting on the context of his ideas while considering how how his line of deeper questioning might be used as an instructive text for individual exploration.
Following the interactive presentation there is some writing about the conversation we had with Rozas. This writing considers Still, a new work, to be created and performed during an upcoming residence at the The Kitchen, NYC in comparison to his previous cycle of work, Myth and Prosthesis, parts I to IV: Do robots have an ethnicity?; I enjoy the world; Robot, teach us to pray; Body Rhythm Data.
Instructions: After clicking present, please allow a few seconds for the content and the animations to load. Sound will autoplay when this is complete and can be silenced on the lower navigational bar. Navigate in and out of the interface with mouse scrolls and clicks, and with the navigation icons on screen. Click on content stages until you can go no further. Click arrows, scroll back, or click the home icon if it is visible to return to a previous stage. Enter full screen viewing by clicking the expanding arrows icon at the bottom right hand of the iframe. Click on the arrow icon to play embedded videos.
Efraín Rozas and I spoke over Zoom as is the norm these days. He was in the moist warmth of late summer in Lima while I was in Vancouver and still under the influence of seasonal affective disorder. The difference in time zone and climate was blatantly obvious from the screen display: me, pale and chilled in front of bougie white Ikea shelving and bundled in striped sweaters; Efraín, a low res apparition under wooden beams lit by sparse incandescent bulbs sporting the effect that humidity has on human hair. The difference of our immediate environments, say experience, was starkly obvious. It struck me that in a similar way an extreme contrast in aesthetics separates Rozas’ upcoming project Still from his previous four part cycle of work, Myth and Prosthesis.
Still will be composed and then performed at The Kitchen in NYC starting with a residence that begins shortly, as I write this, at the end of March 2021. The Kitchen is a not-for-profit performance space with a overwhelmingly impressive provenance founded in 1971 by video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka in their frustration for a lack of video art venues. The legacy of The Kitchen and the artists and performers that have passed through the doors reads like a hall of fame who’s who. Their webiste lists all the influential experimental musicians, artists, film makers and performers that you could possibly think of from Laurie Anderson to Phillip Glass. The list is literally expansive and mind blowingly humbling.
Rozas sent me some photos taken to promote and prepare for Still. They show him, the artist as performer, in the perfunctory black shirt and pants of modern minimalism, afore mentioned hair tamed into a sleek, short pony tail. The figure of the artist is seen in white expanse, probably a photo studio seamless, and a subtle grid of off white sections overlay the composition. He appears serene, looking down, pensive, contemporary, and in control.
Still will be developed, or should I say composed, at The Kitchen. Rozas’ roots have grown from being both a Salsa musician and an academic – Anthropology being his original domain. Still is dictated by a controlled and minimal set of conditions all within what I presume will be a white cube space: one note, four speakers, and a light that changes somehow. The element of light is still to be determined but Rozas spoke of being interested in the way the human eye adapts and visual perception changes at sunset or sunrise. Still will be performed to a small group of viewers, an audience. Giving the description, and the robotic elements of Rozas’ previous work, Still could plausibly have been an automated or responsive set of sonic and auditory conditions enabled by sensors or other triggers. However, for Still the artist will be present.
I expect the need to perform Still comes from Rozas’ background as a Salsa musician. In fact, we delved briefly into the way in which a live musician reads the room, feeling the energy, channelling and if possible even controlling that energy. Rozas expects to not only read the room during Still but to actually use the resonance of the room as the medium of the artwork. Yet, a Salsa club with gyrating, sweaty, sexually charged dancers seems a far distance from this pristine echo chamber dotted with well behaved contemporary art affectionados.
Rozas is a Latin American native, although living, working, and teaching between Lima and New York City. I wonder if too, the difference in the formal conditions and aesthetics between his previous work and this new proposal may also reflect some difference somehow between those two geographic locations. Also, given my own background in Classical Studies, I find it hard not to see an obvious contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
The Apollian/Dionysian distinction is pertinent to Rozas’ constant return to the ideas and writing of Frederick Nietzsche as an fundamental influence. It was Nietzsche who is credited with fully popularizing the concept of a dichotomy between the Apollian as mind, order, and individuation and the Dionysian as emotion, chaos, ecstasy, and unity.
His previous work could certainly be categorized under the emotional and chaotic Dionysian. Myth and Prosthesis was an increasingly intense exploration into self-censorship, repression, psychological conditioning, and from-the-gut expression with the aim of releasing trauma and preconceptions. The cycle started in “Do robots have ethnicity?” with questions about the way in which technology may be coded with certain anthropological biases (read “Western”). Questions about what might happen if he took non-Western rhythms (such as the polyphonic and non-linear) and programmed a percussive robot with that logic were the jumping off point for the work. Then, as he is want, Rozas performed with the “robot” — it responding to his movements and he responding to it’s sound. Thus, the two, man and robot, became essentially intertwined in manifesting the work. Questions about his own ethnic legacy and a desire to connect with his familial history led to that drumming robot also being presented through decoration as a symbolic altar to his ancestors. This presentation of the artist not as a unique individual but within the continuity of existence, lineage, and cultural connection to others is well in keeping with the Dionysian concept of unity over individuation.
In the subsequent three of four parts to Myth and Prosthesis, Rozas set up mystical experiments pushing his body and his senses to limits through oscillations of repression and indulgence. He created and preformed rituals with secrecy or limited access — a certain way to activate the device of mythepoesis. Furthermore, and true to his chosen mediums of expression, he did so though music, text and poetry, performance, robotics and coding. Performing naked, recording hallucinogenic visions, challenging Latin American cultural expectations around masculinity, and pushing the limits of comfort with his own body all contributed to the vast and heady data accumulated by this deeply personal but also universal work. It might all be neatly summarized by Rozas’ own words that he was seeking to create his own mythology.
Unlike the PR images for Still, the photos from Myth and Prosthesis do not show a man in control. They show a man in the throes of the sticky, sweaty, corporeal and messy, vulnerable in-the-body efforts of figuring something out. The figuring it out is part of Rozas’ aim to ask “deeper questions” with his work. His questions are about the structures created and agendas driven by western vs. non-western thought span culture, history, art, and literature. Any liberal academic conversation about western vs. non-western will veer, as did ours, into touching on Capitalism versus other systems such as Marxim, Socialism, Communism, etc. However, all seem contained within the bubble of a reaction for or against what we deem to be “western”, perhaps emphasizing the need for more radical ways to break free of stereotypical dichotomies. I sense that this is what Rozas means when we talked about a different way, a “third way”. As someone who tends toward political centralism, I am sympathetic to this concept and also hold concerns about current and crude bi-sections of the left and the right into the right and wrong.
If Myth and Prosthesis was about a theatrical, possibly histrionic, demonstration of mystic effort for self-actualization, then Still may be about a quiet, private, and cognitive personal reckoning. Both seem to waft over cliché yet also hold something I deeply agree with and respond to with emotion. An outcome for Rozas from his mystic journey was the recognition that one must “live and let live”. This leads my internal jokester to visualize 1970’s poster captions and cue Matt Monro performing Born Free against lush strings. Yet, and while acknowledging the bratty ambivalence of my own response the sentiment expressed by Rozas and others as a universal truth remains one that I deeply agree with and respond to with emotion.
Something essential does seem to connect the two hemispheres that on the surface, aesthetics alone, appears to divide Myth and Prothesis from Still; and I suspect that this thing is time.
I speculate that that as a musician, one would be blatantly inclined to constantly think about time in the same way a painter may naturally always be thinking about colour or mark making. Music is after all a time-based medium — fundamentally the definition of music is that it must move through and be organized by time. Thus to be a musician and an anthropologist like Rozas it must be impossible to avoid and separate deep concerns about both time and human existence.
Western music is predicated on western ideas about time. As a musician when responding to western and non-western sources and influences, different ways of thinking about time must have a substantial influence.
Ways of thinking and responding to time have fluctuated over human history. The Ancient Greeks identified two different types of time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was the word for chronological or sequential time and kairos was an opportune, and specific moment. The former was necessarily transitory while the latter had a qualitative and permanent nature. It is curious and worth noting that when defined in writing by Aristotle, chronos, linear time was a wildly radical idea. Non-linear time was the norm for most cultures. For some cultures this was a cyclical understanding of the passing of time, akin to the rotation of the seasons. For rare others, like the dreamtime of Australian Aborigines, this was an understanding of time that folds, overlaps, and collapses more like the space-time described by modern day physics.
I suggest that for Rozas to be using generative music as a medium through which to contemplate the essence of human existence, while wanting to challenge the conventions of stereotypical western thinking, any and all implications about and reflections on time are unavoidable. Time is thus perhaps the core medium he is manipulating in all of his work. In fact, ritualistic meditations carried out during Myth and Prosthesis led him to have personal and mythical visions about the nature of non-linear time.
While Myth and Prosthesis may have been an exciting, chaotic and theatrical experience for both the Rozas and his voyeuristic audience, the aim was mostly to manifest moments of deeper understanding and enlightenment for the artist. Although Still has the outward appearance of being more cerebral, polite and internalized, it may actually be more generous in terms of offering up personally meaningful outcomes to the audience participants. Through the manipulation of various senses and in particular the space and time between the absence and presence of sensory stimulation, Rozas will be aiming to trigger profound moments of kairos. Why the outward seeming move from chaos to control and from participant to celebrant? Perhaps as the perennial performer Rozas, is as always, feeling the room; and perhaps accurately feeling that kairos is the time we all need now.
Photos: Promotion for Still; Documentation of Myth and Prosthesis IV: Body Rhythm Data by Sandra Arenas; Documentation of Myth and Prosthesis III: Robot, Teach us to Pray; Documentation of Myth and Prosthesis II: I Enjoy The World by Ameer Kazimi; Promotion for Myth and Prosthesis I: Do Robots have an Ethnicity? by Juan Pablo Aragón.
About the artist: Equally an artist, academic, musician, and mystic, Rozas holds a PhD from New York University on new integrations of body, mind and technology through ritual and rhythm. His time-based and performance artwork has been described by The New Yorker as “A heady confluence of technology, culture and cognition” and by Wire Magazine as “A deep psychonautic dive”. Rozas is recipient of many grants and awards who has also performed at prestigious institutions. He is currently preparing for a residency and exhibition at The Kitchen in New York City beginning March 2021.
About the writer: Jennifer Mawby is a contemporary artist and sometimes curator and art writer with a focus on projects for artists using accessible language. Jennifer is the co-founder and director of Vantage Art Projects. Her work can be found here: www.jjtmstudio.com and on Instagram: @jenniferjeanmawby.