No matter how sleek our gadgets get or how realistic our video games become, nothing quite beats the tactile experience of pulling the plunger on a pinball machine or selecting songs on a jukebox full of CDs. Angelenos, even tech-obsessed millennials, flood arcade bars on the regular.
Beatriz Cortez brings those sorts of classic objects to the museum for her show “Nomad World” at the Vincent Price Art Museum. At first glance, the machines are ready for play but Cortez uses them for a larger purpose: to explore themes of cultural identity and global capitalism.
The retro machines in “Nomad World” don’t function as they were intended. The Jukebox, for example, plays natural sounds that come from CDs. A mechanism “moves the machine as it selects the CD that corresponds to the code you enter,” Cortez explains via email. The old and the new come together and form a totally different kind of machine. This duality mirrors Cortez’s own grappling of her identity. Cortez has lived in both El Salvador and Los Angeles, balancing two different cultural worlds.
“My intention has been to use both analog and digital technologies in each of the pieces in order to evoke that feeling of simultaneity that I have as an immigrant, that sense of existing at once in two different realities,” Cortez says.
Even before she moved to the U.S., she was aware of the confluence of cultures — and of capitalism and cultural hegemony. That came through even in a most playful object: the pinball machine. Cortez distinctly remembers going to a space as a teenager where she could play pinball on machines that were actually discards, shipped to other countries from the U.S. She revisits this narrative in The Beast, a pinball machine that she bought from the Vintage Arcade Superstore in Glendale and outfitted with Arduino microchips, a newly drawn playfield, a specially designed top and a custom-built table.
“My brother Jaime says that he remembers that we used to play pinball in a machine called Cleopatra from the late '70s, and we used to play in the early '80s,” says Cortez. “I wanted to find ways to have that colonial narrative embedded in the machine interacting with another narrative that I tagged or drew on top of the previous one, one that was about immigration and that relates to the title of the piece, The Beast."
This palimpsest also comes through in the way that she meshes old and new technologies. There’s no linear timeframe here, no narrative of how technology develops over time. Instead, old and new tools form the objects. By finding ways to “superimpose multiple versions of technologies and modernities” Cortez layers time and cultural references.
By creating such an interactive space, Cortez allows the viewers to also bring their own memories and cultural backgrounds to each object. Through this “exploration of play as a source of joy,” Cortez wants to create an environment “to trigger our imagination into being others: other people, in other contexts, in other locations and with other experiences.”
Cortez further explores the idea of the “other” by allowing visitors to literally place themselves in other locations (at least as far as photographic relocation goes). The Photo Booth lets users roll down a background (manually, in keeping with the analog element) that shows an area of Central America. From there, an iPad takes the photos and gives users the option to share them via social media.
Its akin to the uploading of photos from a foreign vacation in a “pics or it didn’t happen” era — a type of photography that eerily echoes a colonialist attitude towards countries outside of the U.S.
But each viewer can take from the piece what they might — especially Angelenos who live such a diverse city.
“It was crucial to have this show in Los Angeles where it is not even necessary to migrate or to cross borders, but only to move from one neighborhood of Los Angeles to another, in order to understand that sense of simultaneity that I am exploring,” wrote Cortez. “I think these pieces will speak to people from all walks of life and all backgrounds, and Los Angeles is a multicultural city.”
Cortez recognizes that Los Angeles contains a history that goes beyond the years she’s lived here. In her work, she hopes to both highlight that rich history and look at the ways in which her own experiences, both here and in El Salvador, shape her perception of the city.
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“I am interested in giving visibility to those simultaneous realities that we find in Los Angeles: in the buildings, in the layout of the city space, the multiple intentions and cultural positions that I see,” Cortez says. “In many ways those coexist and relate to that perspective that migration has given me.”
Turns out we can trace the complexity of cultural relations in something as simple as a pinball machine.
"Nomad World" is on view until January 28, 2017. Vincent Prince Art Museum, 1310 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park. vincentpricemuseum.org.