In 2000, members of the Zapatista Air Force launched an attack on Mexican soldiers stationed in Chiapas. Before this, no one knew the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, notoriously ill-equipped and mainly made up of indigenous people who lived in self-governed rural communities, even had an air force. But how they acquired planes was no mystery: they made them out of paper, folding leaflets with messages and poems written across, then snuck up close enough to send a fleet of hundreds into an army encampment.
Six years earlier, in 1994, when the Zapatistas first became known as a movement, they had donned black ski masks (“so that we would stop being invisible”) and staged a largely non-violent revolt against the out-of-touch government, taking control of cities throughout Chiapas. No lives would have been lost if not for the Mexican Army's retaliation. “We didn't go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard,” said their leader, Subcomandante Marcos. He also called poetry a “favorite” weapon.
The artist Rigo 23, who made the work for his new exhibition at RedCat in collaboration with Zapatista artists, was in San Francisco when the Zapatistas first revolted. He stole a copy of Yo, Marcos, writings by the Zapatistas' leader, from the Stanford Library and devoured its poetic politics. “It was quite attractive, irresistible even,” Rigo now remembers.
He wasn't the first artist to fall under the Zapatista spell. Mexican performer Guillermo Gomez Pena called Subcomandante Marcos a performance artist, one “fully aware” of his mystical effect, “whose persona was a carefully crafted collage of twentieth-century revolutionary symbols, costumes, and props.” It was as if he'd mashed up Che Guevara, Emilio Zapata (the early 1900s Mexican rebel who gave the Zapatistas their name) and Zorro to become the perfect postmodern revolutionary. Photographer Shawn Mortenson, known for his images of rap and hip-hop musicians, temporarily moved down to Chiapas to photograph the rebels, making them look as much like fashion icons as bandits.
But Rigo 23 “was less interested in the possibility of imagining a sort of utopia,” he says. He wanted to visit the dissidents, but not as a gawker or a fan. “I didn't want to go without a project in mind.” After a decade and a half, he devised one.
In 2009, he heard about the “First Festival of Dignified Rage” in celebration of the Zapatistas' 15th anniversary, and he decided to go. Since the Zapatistas had previously spoken of holding “Intergalactic” global meetings (the first was actually in Chiapas in 2006, not in another galaxy), Rigo 23 thought up plans for an “Autonomous Intergalactic Space Program,” like NASA only more fantastical and renegade. Clara Kim, then curator at RedCat, had invited him to plan an exhibition, so he knew, if it were ever made, he would be able to present an art exhibit version of that Intergalactic Space Program in Los Angeles.
A few days after the festival, he met with the Zapatista juntas and offered to design the program: “How are you going to get to an intergalactic meeting if you have no intergalactic space ship?” he asked. The men he spoke with were masked, but he thought he saw signs of smirks in their eyes. They told him to put the proposal in writing. He did so and submitted it right then. But they clearly did not view him as a priority, and it took over a year for it to pass from juntas who govern caracoles, the independent Zapatista communities, to artists willing to help.
“I had no idea how it would turn out,” says Rigo, who asked a Zapatista painter named Tomas to help him visualize the space program in 2011. “He responded with paintings in which the sun had his face covered, Saturn had his face covered.” The moon wore a red bandana and the space ship was a flying corncob on which each kernel had eyes and wore a ski mask. The “whole universe was Zapatista” in Tomas' renderings, and the project became more Zapatista planetarium than space program.
Over six visits mostly between 2011 and 2012, Rigo probably spent a total of eight months in Chiapas working with artisans. “I don't think it was enough time,” he says. “I still feel overwhelmingly confused.” He saw divisiveness and economic difficulty, and could sense a certain wear — he remembers hearing an older man say, “We are in resistance,” in a voice weighted down by exhaustion. Maybe, in 1994, the revolt boosted living standards, but now conditions seemed to have declined.
But then he also saw reason for optimism. He worked on the mural that stretches across RedCat's foyer with two boys born in 1994 and raised entirely in Zapatista communities. They came to San Cristobal, a city of 166,000, for the first time to paint with Rigo. One, named Samuel, stared out of a shop window in awe the first day he was there: “'How many people,' he said, like he was literally overwhelmed,” Rigo recalls. The kid, along with the mask shielding his face, wore gloves that didn't match — one was a Spiderman glove. “He seemed like a very globalized, hip kid,” recalls Rigo, “but you could feel a big sense of pride” in his cultural independence.
Installed at RedCat, the “Autonomous Intergalactic Space Program” consists of a corridor built with doorframes, window frames and various kinds of paneling. In a side room there are paintings of the Zapatista-run galaxy and, in the center room, an intricate model of the corncob-inspired spaceship.
Because narrow, eye-level slots have been cut into various walls, you can gaze through from the corridor onto the work, or, if you're lined up just right, see through multiple walls at once. “I was thinking of it like peeking, or like clicking on a link and going into a new window,” Rigo explains. But looking through these slots also feels like seeing the world through a Zapatista ski mask. “That effect was unintentional,” he says.