Harry Gamboa, 2013

A Critical Comparison Between Harry Gamboa Jr’s Fire Ants for Nothing (1994) and Loose Change (2010)

© 2013 by Lili Bernard

This essay examines two video works by the Los Angeles-based artist Harry Gamboa Jr: Fire Ants for Nothing (1994) andLoose Change (2010). Both works, though greatly different in content and artistic style, are narratives. Though vastly different, both are anecdotal and metaphoric.  Together, they provide a good example of the breadth of diversity within the repertoire of Harry Gamboa Jr.’s thematically-woven work.

In the spirit of the anecdotal nature of Harry’s work, I will first share the story of how I became acquainted with the artist and his work.

 On April 12, 2007, Harry Gamboa Jr. appeared as a guest lecturer in the annual Rolando Hinojosa-Smith Lecture Series, at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).  He was invited by the university’s Latino Studies Department. The title of Harry’s talk was Nuance: Contemporary Images/Text/Concepts/ Works/Words. The description of Harry’s lecture stated that the artist would be, “examining the complex interaction of the urban Chicano artist and network culture,” and that Gamboa would “reveal how the utilization of various media (photography, video, performance, internet) can affect awareness regarding real-life/real-time and fictional/artificial events.”  The description also read that “The presentation of various works and the responses to these works ate situated within an overview of his career in a series of storied vignettes.”  

My sister, Alicia P. Rodríguez, was Associate Director of UIUC’s Latino Studies Department, at the time. She still maintains the same position at U of I, only the title of her job has changed, for technical reasons due to a shift in the structural design of the department.  Currently, her working title appears as “Academic Advisor and Director of Student Programming.”

Alicia has been principally involved in the planning and hosting of the lecture series. Early on in 2007, she called to inform me that Harry Gamboa Jr would be speaking at the series that Spring. At the time, I had never heard of Harry Gamboa Jr.  Alicia told me that I should know who Harry Gamboa Jr. is, especially with my being a Latina visual artist-activist who lives and works in Los Angeles.

I set out to learn what I could about Harry Gamboa Jr, and in doing so, became mesmerized by his work.  I viewed Harry’s artwork as an example of how I might more effectively approach my own arts-activism practice, as a contemporary visual artist and performer who dabbles in video and whose work is informed by issues which pertain to race and racism, which have impacted my life and that of my peers and loved ones.

In September of 2007, my sister Alicia sent me an email with the news that she had spoken to Harry Gamboa Jr about me and had invited him to attend an open studio event at my Chinatown, Los Angeles art studio.  I kept my studio as a public space, for five years, wherein I mentored local youth and hosted various public events, including theatrical and musical performances, poetry readings, book signings, film screenings, art exhibitions, and an adult artist collaborative.  I called the work effort HABLA: Harvesting Asian, Black, Latino Artists, because I am Chinese, Black and Cuban, and because “habla” means “speak” in Spanish.  The purpose of HABLA was to provide a platform for the voices of underrepresented artists. Alicia said that Harry expressed interest in my work with HABLA.

The event at my studio, to which my sister invited Harry Gamboa Jr, was an inaugural celebration for HABLA.  Harry told my sister that he would attempt to attend the event with his wife Barbara Carrasco who, like her husband, is a Chicano artist/activist.  There were so many people present at the event that I was unable to speak with everyone. To this day, I am still uncertain as to whether or not Harry attended the event.  Not having yet made any contact with the artist, I began following Harry Gamboa Jr.’s work. Here is a summary of who Harry is:

A Chicano visual and performance artist, photographer, videographer, essayist and professor, Harry Gamboa Jr. was born in 1951 and raised in East Los Angeles, California.  Through an avant-garde exploration of the societal alienation of Chicano culture, Harry’s work confronts the racism and classism prevalent in dominant White American culture.
One of the four founding members of the famous Chicano art-activist collaborative known as Asco, Harry Gamboa Jr. is highly published and has exhibited globally in a multitude of museums, art galleries and institutions.  The awards which Harry Gamboa Jr has received include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1980 and 1987), the J. Paul Getty Trust Fund for the Visual Arts (1990), the California Arts Council (1996) and the Rockefeller Foundation (2004), among others.

I set out to finally meet Harry Gamboa Jr. in the summer of 2011, for the purpose of including one of his video pieces in an art show I was curating which dealt with a topic addressed in Harry and Barbara’s work, namely the impact of colonialism on society today.  I had received a flyer from Kathy Gallegos, owner and director of Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park Los Angeles. The gallery is dedicated to exhibiting the works of “artists of color” with a focus in art created by Latino artists. The Ave. 50 Studio website states that they are “grounded in Latino Chicano culture.”  Although I am not a Chicano artist, I have exhibited there several times.  

On September 10, 2011, I attended an opening reception at Ave. 50 Studio for the group art show, entitled Los Vets: a Tribute, curated by Raul de La Sota. The exhibition featured works by Harry Gamboa Jr and his wife Barbara Carrasco, along with their legendary Chicano artist peers.  I went to the opening with the hope of introducing myself to Harry and his wife Barbara Carrasco, and inviting them to participate in the anti-colonialism show which I was curating.  To my delight, the husband and wife artist-activist duo were there when I arrived.  I promptly introduced myself, told them about the exhibition and beckoned them to participate. They graciously accepted my invitation and allowed me to spontaneously videotape them speaking about the works of theirs which they would like to submit for the group show I was curating.

The exhibition which I curated was entitled, Colonialism: The Collective Unconscious.  It opened on the weekend of Columbus Day, on October 9, 2011, at the William Grant Still Arts Center, which is a facility of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.  Thanks in part to the included works of Harry Gamboa Jr and Barbara Carrasco, the show was ranked number five in the Huffington Post year end review, Top 11 L.A. Art Shows of 2011, written by art critic Mat Gleason.

The work of Harry’s which I selected for the show, was his avant-garde video, Fire Ants for Nothing, created in 1994.  It was scripted by poet-musician, Ruben Guevara, who performs as the solo-subject of the video. I chose, for the publicity image of the exhibition, a still frame from Harry’s video.  It is an image of Ruben Guevara, wrapped loosely in a stiff clear plastic sheet, huddled in a fetal position on a gritty urban sidewalk in Los Angeles.  Chromatically, the image is a monotone magenta.

I first watched Fire Ants for Nothing on my home computer, after having picked up the DVD from Barbara Carrasco at a Starbuck’s Café near their home in Santa Monica. Within seconds of watching the video and hearing the voice-over of Ruben Guevara’s emotional contemporary poetry, I began crying.  I consecutively watched the video three times over again, each time deeply moved, each time crying. It was an entirely visceral and spiritual experience.

The video is a poetic narrative of a contemporary Chicano man who is proverbially “down and out on his luck.” The scenery is urban Los Angeles.  It appears that some misfortune occurred in the man’s life, prior to the scene which opens with him. The scenario inspires questions.  Was the subject recently fired from his job?  Or has he been unemployed for too long?  Did he find himself suddenly homeless? Was he pushed to the edge and did he commit a crime? Is he on the verge of committing suicide?

In Fire Ants for Nothing, Harry Gamboa junior uses metaphor and analogy while juxtaposing the organic against the synthetic. Natural elements such as dirt on the ground, twigs and insects unfold into scenes where synthetic and man-made materials such as plastic, hardened cement of city sidewalks, and brick and mortar of Downtown LA buildings, clash against one another, while sheltering and suffocating the softness of a broken-down man Chicano man. 

Though contemporary in subject-matter and content, the video evoked in me mental imagery of the spirit of my ancestors. While watching this collaborative effort between Harry Gamboa Jr and Ruben Guevara, images of my indigenous Cuban ancestors, toiling at the hands of their colonialist oppressors pervaded my thoughts. I will now critically exam Harry Gamboa Jr’s Fire Ants for Nothing to reveal how the artist metaphorically deconstructs the effects of White dominant culture upon Chicano urban culture, thereby alluding to the impact of colonialism and its oppressive methodologies that have plagued our nation from the moment the conquerors stepped foot onto the New World.
The video begins with the words, Fire Ants for Nothing in red text, flashing tentatively five times against a black screen. We open to a close-up of two or three tenacious ants meandering about a desolate flat patch of dirt, where twigs and tiny pebbles are scattered about.  The ambience is yellow, accented with magenta highlights. Busy at work, the ants crawl in and out of a singular hole in the ground which appears as a navel in the center of the screen.

Simultaneously, Ruben Guevara’s voice is heard chanting lowly, as if purging his soul of subconscious streams of frustrated thought which stifle any possibility of joy.  As the ants labor in and out of the circular crevice, carrying objects twice their size, Ruben’s voice is heard murmuring the despair of a man who really could be any man, but in this case is a young Chicano man bewildered and frustrated in Downtown L.A. The man rants,

“It’s become a fucking joke. It’s all become a fucking joke. Working, struggle, you struggle, you slave, to make, to make a few fucking cents, to make just to get ahead a little bit. What happens, it’s just, naw nah, it’s blowing, get’s blown, it just get’s blown away like a fucking mountain of an ant, an ant hill.  All that work can be blown out, can be blown out, all right like the wind.”

But what’s the wind? Nothing but energy, it’s blowing, it’s blowing, it’s blowing, it’s blowing in my face, in my brain, blowing in my blood stream. It pushes me, yeah, it pushes it pushes . . . to what, to what to what?

Aimless, aimless ant; I feel like an aimless ant some time, but no, naw, naw, naw, naw.  Keep going man, something matters, what matters, man.  Your humanness, your humanness, you’re human, you’re a human being, not an animal, keep moving, keep moving, keep working, keep working, work, work, work, work!  Gimme a fucking break, gimme a fucking job and I’ll work.  I’m working, I’m working, I’m working! Fly, fly, fly, fly, flying!”

While watching the young Chicano man bemoan about his victimization, about the struggles he faces in capitalistic 1994 Urban L.A., I revert to images of my Siboney (Cuban indigenous) ancestors, enslaved by conquistadors who stole everything they set their eyes upon and viewed the natives not as humans but as animal to be driven and slaughtered, like working ants to be used, abused and extinguished.

“Fly, fly, fly,” reminds me of my Siboney forbearers jumping off cliffs in Matanzas, yelling “Yumurí,” in their broken Spanish, which they thought meant, “I die,” as they soared in suicide to the river below, extinguishing themselves.

Such are the images which fill my mind as I watch the ants roam across the screen, laboring and carrying pebbles and sticks in an out of the hole in the ground.  All the while, Ruben Guevara’s voice-over fluctuates passionately from breathy whispers to low moans, meshed into a background music comprised of four cosmic-sounding dreary notes, which alternate back and forth in a dizzying, trance-inducing, monotonous sea saw-like pattern, dissonantly reverberating,.
“Run, run, run, hide, hide, hide! You cannot hide! Get up, get up! Get up, get back, get, get back, you, run, run, run . . .” urges Ruben Guevara’s voice-over, before it fades as the ants at work also fade to black, and as images of my indigenous ancestors running from their captors pervade my thoughts. 

A negative remnant in red of the navel in the ground flashes once in the center of blackness, before the words, “director Harry Gamboa Jr, also in red text, scroll up and flash eerily and tentatively two times across the screen before disappearing.

We open to a gritty urban city sidewalk, from the view point of an ant. The color theme is a monotone magenta. The camera is held low to the ground as the rough texture of the stained, chipped sidewalk passes before our eyes in an angular and very fast motion, like the movement of ants darting here and there. The camera sweeps lowly over discarded tissues and a stepped-on empty carton of beer, before glimpses of Los Angeles city skyscrapers flash in the background. It’s like we’ve traveled in time.    

A flattened stained cardboard box reveals Ruben Guevara sitting atop it. His dark clothing is contrasted against the rigid see-thru plastic which envelope his crouching body, covering his face. He peers from the plastic and we momentarily catch a glimpse of his anxious face as he quickly recoils at the sound of a car passing by and hides his face again in the sheer plastic angular plastic which crinkles above the sound of the monotonous background music.
Who is this man? What has happened to him?  Why is he crouched in a fetal position, against a stark brick wall, painted white, as he hides in a clear plastic sheet in vain? Does he see the world as a monotone magenta as I see the environment around him?

“Can’t handle it, Can’t handle it!” He warns as he rubs the chin under his penetrating eyes into which beads of perspiration drip, confusing sweat with tears. “I can’t handle it! I don’t give a fuck! I’m not a fucking ant! No more work! No more light! Fuck it!” he cries as the camera zooms into his weeping face, before he wraps the plastic around his head, like a hood, and the crinkling sound of the rigid plastic collides with the sounds of the car motors and horns in the background.

For a moment I lose thought of my ancestors and watch the suffering subject as he rises and paces alongside the building, wrapped in plastic, like some synthetic zombie shifting down the city sidewalk. For a moment the magenta turns to normalness, but is quickly interrupted by black and white as a strobe affect provides a tenuous feeling on the subject now like a moving abstract colorless painting, forcefully shifted across the TV screen.

Black and white turn to purple as the camera zooms into Ruben’s hand. Once again, I am reminded of my indigenous Cuban ancestors and of their hands which were severed from their bodies, because they did not bring the ration of gold which the conquerors commanded they bring. The camera zooms into Ruben’s finger pointing at a lone ant on the pavement, following it relentlessly, while Ruben’s voice-over is heard frustrated, angry, victorious, yelling,

“Right there! The fucking ant! Right there! The last, last, last mother fucker! But you know what?! That mother fucker is alive.” Once again I am reminded of my Siboney forbearers who they say were nearly exterminated, during the Spanish conquest of my birth island.  Was my great grandmother, Clemencia, the last survivor, like the ant? They say she was a full-blooded Siboney.

Purple changes to a yellowish black and white of a night-light effect, as more ants suddenly appear, roaming chaotically across occasional shards of grass peeking out from in between the crevices which separate the slabs of city sidewalk.  Each frantic ant projects a ray of light as they meander to and away from the giant hand which glows white from within the fleshy webs which connect the fingers.

“Is that what it’s for? Is that what it’s for? Is that the inspiration? Is that it? Write it! Let it flow, run with it! Wait! Yes, no, yes, no!” Ruben Guevara whispers frantically as the camera stays tight on his fingers, spread wide open, chasing and enticing the ants to come hither, seducing the insects in hushed tones as he says, “Go for the light,” like some passage of scripture.

Suddenly the night-light effect turns to normal light and then immediately to black and white as the camera maintains a close up of the hand which now squashes the ant on the sidewalk, as Ruben’s voice-over is heard saying, with an air of vengeance and vindication,

“That’s right! That’s how I feel! That’s how I feel! Like a fucking ant! Like a squashed mother fucking ant on the fucking sidewalk of fucking LA!” as he squashes the dead ant some more into the pavement, with the palm of his hand. Is he the ant extinguishing himself?

The camera zooms into Ruben’s face, uncovered from the plastic, as he says more calmly, “Now your back to dust, Ese! That’s where I go. That’s where I’m going. That’s where I go.”

The camera zooms away from Ruben’s face and reveals the city sidewalk, and the building with the LA city skyscrapers in the background. Ruben, now far away, says in a voice-over,

“Yeah, you can start over again. You can do it. There you go again. Push the mother fucking rock up the hill. Watch out you don’t trip, you trip out! Watch out you don’t trip in. “

And the urban scenery transforms to the flat patch of dirt again, this time, purple in tone. Ants, many of them, scurry in and out of the crevice in the middle of the screen that appears again like a navel. Only this time there has been a transformation. Around the navel is a gentle abyss, like a funnel, shaped in angels wings which gently gives way to the dark hole in the middle, surrounded by two large white accentuating pebbles that perhaps were moved to let the ants in and out.

I naturally reverted to thoughts of my ancestors, to death and dying, to the life hereafter, to the heavens full of so many souls, to the spirit and to the Christ whom my indigenous and slave ancestors accepted as Savior, who in spirit, rolled away the rock from the cave where Christ was buried, so that He could emerge alive again after his death on the cross.

Such is the imagery which Harry Gamboa Jr’s very urban and contemporary Fire Ants for Nothing elicits in my mind.

Similarly, Harry Gamboa Jr’s video Paper Cut, which he made sixteen years after Fire Ants for Nothing, also provokes in me thoughts about the effects of colonialism.  The two videos are contrastingly different, yet touch on binary aspects of the same social dynamic. The focus in Paper Cut can be interpreted as not centering on how colonialism and capitalism affect the mindset of the disenfranchised (as it is in Fire Ants for Nothing), but rather on how colonialism has affected the psyche of the oppressor, or so I see it.

The two works are not just thematically contrasting, but they also compositionally and aesthetically very different from one another. Whereas in Fire Ants for Nothing, Harry Gamboa Jr is behind the camera, filming a character who sculpts a narrative; in Paper Cut, Harry Gamboa Jr is the subject. Unlike Fire Ants for Nothing where different scenes, in alternating color tones, flash across the screen and the camera meanders, following subjects who roam about the screen as avant-garde music plays in the background; in Paper Cut, the camera remains stationary from beginning to end, as does Harry remain stationary in front of the camera, looking straight into the lens to whom he speaks, devoid of any background music.

In Paper Cut there are no props, no gadgets, no synthetics, no urban elements, no action.  There is only Harry Gamboa Jr, in a black T-shirt, outside, in front of some green shrubs, facing the camera, stationary, and talking.  He tells a story with no particular expression on his face, unlike Ruben Guevara’s face which was aching with expression.  In Paper Cut, Harry radiates no discernible emotion in his countenance or in his voice, outside of occasional amusement that creeps in, as he tells the story of man who is cut by paper. He begins,

“So I was laughing while he was telling me the story of great pain and struggle. I just couldn’t help it, found myself giggling uncontrollably, because I guess I’ve been there. And I wasn’t so sure what he was so concerned about. There is after all going to be another day. Isn’t there? He wasn’t really harmed in a real extreme way. It was only really a paper cut.  It was only nothing he should really be concerned about.  I mean there are bigger things to worry about.”

Here, Harry mocks a subject whom we do not see. He scoffs at the invisible person for exaggerating what he perceives to be a mundane problem. Is Harry setting up the anecdote as a comparison between the trying life of a person of color and the trifling concerns of a privileged White man? And what are the concerns of the privileged as opposed to those of the disenfranchised?

Harry goes on, “But he was more impressed about what kind of paper it was – what the paper said. He wouldn’t allow me to read it.  I wanted to understand what it was.”

Is Harry speaking about the tactics of gatekeepers, the methods they employ to keep other interested and unwanted parties out? Or is he talking about something else? The next sentence which stems from Harry’s mouth, links this video with Fire Ants for Nothing. He says,

“I wasn’t sure if it was a suicide note,” but then Harry Gamboa Jr very quickly changes the possible urgency to the mundane again, continuing, “Or maybe it was a receipt or a bill or some kind of — maybe it was a birth certificate. I wasn’t sure. But every time he tried to touch that paper, it would cut his fingers.”

Could Harry be speaking of the codification in the language of the gatekeepers of academia, of the secrecy in their rhetoric and the loftiness of the documents they write and maintain at a distance from others who are less privileged? Then Harry tries to reason with his antagonist by suggestion some common sense solutions which the antagonist refuses. Harry suggests,

“I said, uh, listen – why don’t you wear gloves? Why don’t you have some friend hold it for you? And he says no, no, it’s my responsibility. And I know he was a responsible kind of person, but really, it was not that important of an event, I wasn’t sure why he did that, him and his bloodied fingers. “

Again, Harry is mocking the invisible subject for senselessly complaining about trifling problems which could be very easily remedied. Is Harry implying that it must be so easy to be a White man? Is the man even White? 
Next, Harry’s frustration in the man turns into suspicion.

“Maybe he’s always had blood on his hands. Maybe it really was a confessional note. Maybe it was something he’s done. I don’t know. If only I could have read the thing. I could have explained to him and interpreted the fact that it is an invisible form of ink – something that should never be read, something that should never be deciphered. I think it was a blank sheet of paper.”

Is Harry implying that the mind of the man, who’s trifling concerns he mocks, is as vacuous as is the history he created bloodied by the hands of the oppressor’s own forbearers? Or is Harry saying that the actions of the privileged negatively impact the lives of the disenfranchised. Or is he talking about war?