In recent years, the United States has finally started to formally acknowledge its volatile relationship to the original peoples of the land, despite their long protestation and resistance to erasure. In the U.S. and Canadian art worlds, this recognition, though late, has come with a host of reparative institutional tactics, some of which include the performance of printed and spoken stolen-land acknowledgments or dedicated space in exhibition calendars for Indigenous artists. Though these efforts are certainly worthwhile and should continue, it is important to note that they are merely first steps on a path towards the rematriation of land and cultural autonomy for Indigenous folks in the U.S and Canada. Santiago X is an artist based in Chicago whose work contends with the growing pains of making space—physically and intellectually—for Indigenous peoples, their knowledge, and their artistic output.
Trained as an architect, Santiago X’s projects take on a set of spatial politics in their conceptualization. He has made works about surveillance, world-building, the darker sides of American traditions, and the continuation of Indigenous cultural and ritual forms. His recent pieces range from large public projects to immersive video installations. In our conversation we discuss the anachronizing ways Indigenous peoples are coded, as timeless, singular, and unchanging. Santiago reflects on how his architectural background has informed his artistic practice and how his work continues to straddle art and architecture. His recent inclusion in the Chicago Architecture Biennial and upcoming inclusion in the Venice Biennale’s Architecture Pavilion further attest to this combined interest. In addition to speaking about some of his recent projects, we also parse out the flimsiness of stolen-land acknowledgements, what futurism looks like in his work, and how Indigenous artistic practices challenge art history’s limited framing of what constitutes art.
"It’s incredibly meaningful to me to rejuvenate mound-building here in Illinois where I live and breathe and is home to Cahokia, the largest pre-Colombian city and mound civilization in what is currently called the United States of America...[its] an opportunity to reawaken ourselves through the land, reclaim our traditional practices, and return to our principles of Indigenous placemaking."
You call yourself an Indigenous Futurist, which I think is a powerful label because it challenges the very limited perception some people have of Indigenous folks. Can you speak about what this term means to you in your artistic practice and how its radical potential ripples through society at large?
I’m adamant that my artistic work and the principles that guide it break through the imposed tropes that bar Indigenous peoples from being full participants in the world we live in. The past tense has been forcibly injected, through colonial mechanisms, into our lifeways. I’m tired of the perpetuation of that model. I acknowledge that the label “Indigenous Futurist” is unabashedly loaded. I use it as both a weapon and armor against the ignorant people that attempt to distort and distill Indigenous contributions to society through the discourses of archaeology or anthropology. When all institutions view Indigenous creative production as art instead of artifact and assign authorship instead of anonymity, then the ripples will be felt.
You recently completed your MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What was it like exploring these ideas in an art school environment?
It was wild. Art school was the deep end for me and these ideas, as they manifested into tangible iterations, gave me air to breathe. I had my challenges navigating the academic art world. I had never officially been exposed to this kind of unbridled self-sustaining creative production before, where we ourselves make the rules. Throughout my architectural education, I spent the majority of my time trying to break prescribed rules. The main challenge for me while I was at SAIC, was the absence of faculty that identified as Indigenous to the Midwest. There was a void in Indigenous artistic perspectives and histories that I had to overcome through my own supplemental research and experience.
HAYO TIKBA (THE FIRE INSIDE), 2019, Traditional hut made of invasive non-indigenous plant species harvested from Chicago city streets, earth from sovereign tribal lands, video projection, virtual reality. Commissioned by the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Images by Tom Harris, Kendall McCaugherty. Retrieved from here.
I think it’s really telling that you came to art-making through studying architecture. How did that transition take place? In some ways, art and architecture are extremely interrelated and reliant on one another, as can be seen in the latest edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, of which you are included. However, there is a scale and ambition to architecture not just in terms of form, but also related to its spatial politics that art is not always keen to address. Is there anything unique to an architectural methodology that art is unable to offer?
Art was my intentional departure from the overbearing context of creating work that was dominantly governed by routine program or utility. At my final critique before I received my M.Arch, I stood up in front of everyone and presented a multi-use hybrid building that had no floor plans. It was at that moment that I told the entire crit. panel that I was an artist. In retrospect, I was fed up with the expectations of creating within a set of preconditions. Upon reflection, I was making a bold commentary on being an Indigenous person in a prescribed colonial world. My invitation to contribute to the Chicago Architecture Biennial was a full-circle moment for me. The universe was telling me that architecture wasn’t done with me yet. There is space to create in the context of architecture while breaking the rules of colonialism.
I think that “good art” does address spatial politics, as well as the racial, socioeconomic, and cultural politics of our time. It’s necessary that we, as artists, wield the power we have within cultural institutions, to challenge and shift power dynamics in favour of equality. In regards to the scale of architecture and how that translates into the art world, I’m still personally finding my own rhythms. Yes, there are thresholds of accessibility that are unlocked or dismantled as work grows in scale, but I also think there is an intimacy that can be lost in doing so. Navigating art through architectural installation is a delicate balance. With that said, I believe the compartmentalization of art and architecture needs to die. Our emphasis on architectural utility needs to be paired with the art of contemplative placemaking and reciprocally, our emphasis on art object production needs to be mindful of place.
THE RETURN (o:lači okhiča), 2018. Light, sound, video projection. Installed at Ars Electronica Festival 2018. Linz, Austria.
Let’s talk about how new media and technology are leveraged in your practice. New media technologies really allow us to glimpse at alternative possibilities and open up the process of world building, or maybe world re-building, by providing images to grasp hold of. On the other hand, many artists have been appropriating technologies to counteract the increased surveillance of marginalized people in Western societies. Video and projection are integral components in almost all of your recent projects I have seen. Why is this medium significant for you?
For me, the use of new media and emerging technology in my practice is a product of necessity - out of a need for me to challenge my preconceived notions of what art is, what it can be and do going forward. I see the blurry intersection of the physical and digital world as an opportunity to hack the divisions that limit us and create portals of embedded truths. There are perspectives we can only ascertain if we bend the world to reveal them, or allow ourselves to zoom out, if only for a brief moment. For instance, if we can let ourselves view the world as it really is - in constant rotation, orbiting a dying star, within a solar system that collectively orbits the Milky Way galaxy, that is just one of a network of 100 billion galaxies - we can start to better understand our role here. The truth is that we need this planet more than this planet needs us. Our acceleration towards a post-human world is due to our own negligence and our own collective incapacity to heal the scars we have introduced and continue to introduce to this planet. If we can agree that technological pursuit renders this negligence, then my work is the superimposition of this human-made technology mined from earth and projected back onto itself. Through this process, we can better understand what we are doing and recognize that we are now at our last threshold to shift our post-human trajectory.
"Our emphasis on architectural utility needs to be paired with the art of contemplative placemaking and reciprocally, our emphasis on art object production needs to be mindful of place."
Your work seems to be animating histories that have either been intentionally forgotten or strategically suppressed. It is exciting to me that your approach is not overly didactic. You bring life to these histories by rebuilding structures or symbols, such as the effigy mound in POKTO ČINTO (Serpent Twin Mound), or the traditional hut in, HAYO TIKBA (The Fire Inside). These works encourage viewers to read history through art objects and architectures rather than rely on text or storytelling. Can you speak about this, or in general about the conceptual tactics you employ?
You know, a lot of our collectively understood history here on this continent is regurgitated and distorted through the gatekeepers of colonialism and the English language, to the point that history becomes “histories,” and I see this as problematic. I actively seek to create moments that glitch these distortions back into truths. In a lot of scenarios English words, for me, limit the scope of understanding. I was having a dialogue the other day with a curator and friend, Duncan Bass, about the complexity of art’s relationship to history, how they are mutually interdependent but separate, how each is defined and distorted, and who has the power to define it. In the two works you mentioned, POKTO ČINTO (Serpent Twin Mound) and HAYO TIKBA (The Fire Inside), there is no text or didactic information to supplement the work. I do that with the intention of minimizing distortion and letting the universality of our individual relationships with image, sound, and place orient us towards our own experientially perceived truths. If people are willing to dig further they’ll discover that the titles for these works are in my ancestral language and that the intentions of making of them are tied to ancestral practices that predate the cracked foundations of this country. They’ll also learn that I believe the suppression of Indigenous history and lifeways is what created those cracks. It’s up to the viewer to dive as deep as they want, but ultimately, the framework that guides my work is always the perpetuation of our humanity and our world. Often that understanding transcends words.
I want to talk in detail about POKTO ČINTO (Serpent Twin Mound). This piece incorporates Indigenous mound-building practices and consists of two installations along the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, I read that this is the first time an effigy earthwork has been constructed by a Native American in North America since the founding of the U.S. That is an extremely powerful and heartbreaking piece of information. With this in mind, what does this symbol mean to you, and does this work have a specific audience?
It’s incredibly meaningful to me to rejuvenate mound-building here in Illinois where I live and breathe and is home to Cahokia, the largest pre-Colombian city and mound civilization in what is currently called the United States of America. Logistically speaking, I saw this as an opportunity to reawaken ourselves through the land, reclaim our traditional practices, and return to our principles of Indigenous placemaking. With that said, the audience is always humanity, individual and collective, and the purpose is our contemplation of the human condition. The serpent symbolizes fragility and balance. It is the manifestation of a being that weaves land and water together, holding the earth and our human existence within its teeth.
SOVEREIGN; Invasive / Non-Indigenous Phragmites Grass, Rebar. by Santiago X in collaboration with Chi-Nations Youth Council. Curated and Produced by Marianne Bernstein for Nomadicube. Bridgeport, Chicago, IL. 2019.
Art history is certainly a site of erasure and marginalization. What is the relationship of a piece like this to the lineage of earthworks and Land Art in the art historical sense? Would you consider it a part of the same history or does it run counter to it?
The only effigy mounds to be built here in recent times, until the ones I built, were by a non-native son of an archaeologist, named Michael Heizer. They were built right here in Illinois. You can see how troubling that is. I have great respect for some of the thoughtful work of Heizer. For instance, I was living in Los Angeles when he paralyzed the city to deliver and install Levitated Mass (2012) at LACMA. I was in awe. His work Effigy Tumuli, which translates roughly to, “Effigy Burial Mound,” I am less compelled by, in fact, I hope someday to drive out and piss all over those mounds. Everyone’s invited! I can charter a bus for us.
Mounds on this continent took on all types of typologies, just like contemporary buildings do. The packaging of all of them as simply places of burial reduces Indigenous existence to an archaeological trope that traps us in the past tense. Native misappropriation in Land Art, and in the American art world in general, is a big problem that often gets overlooked and is, in fact, disgustingly celebrated. This is due to a lack of acknowledgment of the ancestral peoples of each site and to insensitivity to the outright theft of Indigenous ways of making. In respect to the lineage of Indigenous earthworks, this is a reawakening, a continuation, done out of reverence for my ancestors and the necessity to live in our own world again. In respect to Land Art in the art historical sense, at least here on this continent, it’s a big “Fuck You.” I’m always open to collaboration for the correction of wrongs, so if you’re reading this hit me up Heizer, Turrell, Smithson, we can collaborate in the next realm.
Your piece ITTIMAPOTKAT (Side by Side) is currently part of the Petty Biennial in Chicago. The work turns an empty Thanksgiving dinner table sideways. It is a haunting inversion of the American holiday. This installation feels different from your other works given its use of so many found objects and its domestic scene. Can you talk about this piece?
This is the first iteration of a series of works I’m referring to as “DIORAMAS.” These works challenge historical representations, typical of the dioramic installations you would see in a local museum, through inversion and implication. The English translation, “Side by Side” in this work implies the act of bending the world we participate in, so that we have a self-critical perspective. Ancestrally and matrilineally, I come from the Turkey Clan of the Koasati people. I use this personal lineage to activate the pain I personally feel when people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving. I pair an inflatable turkey table setting with a continuous video montage of clips that include a Thanksgiving turkey stuffing tutorial by a British chef, Elizabeth Warren lying about her Native ancestry in an old political ad, and an archived Thanksgiving NFL game between the Cowboys and Redskins. It’s an accumulation of the distortions of Americana, my culture on a platter, hung on a wall for all of us to carve up, devour, and digest together.
"It’s necessary that we, as artists, wield the power we have within cultural institutions, to challenge and shift power dynamics in favour of equality."
In the last decade or less, there has been a proliferation of art institutions that deliver land acknowledgments, in print, on their website, and in person, usually at the opening of public programs. I have seen the land acknowledgment framed as a “speech act,” which intends to bind the audience by virtue of its delivery - requiring them to think of the land they occupy as stolen. This realization is framed as a simple fact. I see the power in words, however, I somehow feel that land acknowledgments have become an empty gesture, a sidestepping of actually thinking about what that acknowledgment of theft and genocide really means. I’m sure you have thoughts on this.
Let’s just call it what it is going forward, a stolen-land acknowledgment, but let's not stop there and actually give the land back. It’s wild that in these acknowledgments they call out by tribal affiliation, those people that have claim to the land ancestrally. We know then who lived and thrived in each respective site through this declaration, yet I never see an effort to return the land to the living descendants. When a car is claimed as stolen and is found we know, through documentation, who the rightful person the car belongs to and we give the car back to that person, right? We also hold the car thief accountable and give them a sentence or act in accordance with restorative justice. My response every time I hear one of these stolen land acknowledgments is, “now give the land back,” so we can rematriate the land back to the world.
What is on the horizon for you in terms of new projects or research areas?
As far as projects go, I’m excited this year to complete my next earthwork. It is a large one-hundred-foot wide hybrid effigy-platform mound of a coiled serpent, resting in the city limits by the Chicago River, looking down upon the city skyline. I’ll also be growing my performance practice through a solo debut at the MCA Chicago this spring, and traveling to the site of the Mayflower launch in Plymouth, UK to take part in SETTLEMENT, a month-long occupation through art activation alongside a powerhouse line-up of other Indigenous artists. I was also just notified that I’ve been curated into the Venice Architecture Biennale to contribute to an Indigenous pavilion.
In regards to research, I’ll be in Brazil next month as an envoy of The American Arts Incubator, sponsored by The U.S. State Department and ZERO1, leading teams of local artists and technologists to investigate economic inequity in the region. We’ll be researching and developing extended reality art interventions within a curriculum I’ve developed entitled, “Augment Earth: Embedded Futures.” I’m really grateful for these opportunities and all others on the horizon that push my work, help us break down walls, and build more bridges to each other.
The above is a conversation conducted by Jameson Paige. Paige is a curator and writer currently based in Philadelphia. Editorial support by Toronto-based art critic and independent curator, Shauna Jean Doherty