by Bernardo Diaz
In Dallas in 2011, The Meadows School of the Arts was the center of intense debates about the fitness of the city’s art scene for supporting socially engaged public art, residency programs, small art spaces, and diverse creative practices, generally. Then art historian and Meadows School Alum Scott Gleeson was profoundly influenced by the tenor of these debates, and became inspired to initiate his own public art practice directly following a lecture by Houston artist Rick Lowe, a specialist in social practice and founder of Project Row Houses. He immediately began developing his first professional art project, addressing the subject of wage theft among migrant workers recently publicized by the passage into law of wage theft bill SB1024. Gleeson’s project, titled Las Manos Negras, or The Black Hands, an appropriation of the derogatory Spanish term for illegal laborers, received a prestigious grant from The Idea Fund and began operating at known day labor hire sites in East Dallas in January of 2012.
As the son of two immigrants, one of which crossed the U.S./ Mexican Border as an undocumented worker several times before finally gaining citizenship, I was interested in how Las Manos Negras addressed issues of accessibility, audience, authorship, artistic autonomy, and whether this type of work can be situated as a work of art among the multitude of art practices that have already been consumed by art institutions such as museums, galleries, and academies.
Gleeson and his collaborator Dane Larsen initiated the project by focusing on a single group of laborers that congregate around a convenient store close to his home and specifically addresses the issue of wage theft encountered by these men while seeking work. On the surface, these laborers seem to identify and understand each other’s plights as undocumented immigrants, however, the artists immediately identified the common use of aliases among the workers as the single biggest threat to group cohesion and potential community organizing efforts. Even more surprising was the realization that contractors of Latino background were robbing these laborers of their wages! The assumption that existing in a culturally diverse city like Dallas somehow facilitates identifying with one another as Latinos is now turned on its head.
Gleeson’s operational modeled for Las Manos Negras is informed partly by disciplines such as applied anthropology, community activism, and popular education, and partly by avant-garde strategies of institutional critique. “Our primary goal is listening to and empathizing with the workers so we may better understand their plight,” declares Gleeson. “This strategy allows LMN the necessary critical distance from existing government agencies and advocacy groups with whom we have partnered to observe what is working and what isn’t and to try to fill the gap. For instance, only one of the local organizations we work with conducts regular outreach at hire sites – a major reason so many workers are unaware of the legal services available to them.” Gleeson’s statement brings up questions of the problematic assumptions made about accessibility. Particularly is the assumption that a service is accessible simply by existing within a given site or institution without taking into account problems that arise from lack of transportation, time, language barriers and literacy, or a lack of knowledge of services relevant to the issues these laborers face. In identifying these problems, Gleeson and Larsen intervened by providing, free remittance services, transportation to and from agency offices, translation and notarization of legal forms, and facilitation of conversations between the workers and agencies. This approach has allowed Las Manos Negras to retrieve hundreds of dollars in lost wages and file multiple successful claims with the Texas Workforce Commission, empowering the workers with knowledge that justice is possible even for undocumented migrants.
Along with the written and audio documentation of these conversations, Scott also fabricated nomadic micro-monuments to the laborers themselves. These sculptures take on the form of re-purposed antique lunch boxes that in turn, along with it's contents, serve as a signifier for the day laborers and their experiences; a compilation of portable archives collected through their interactions. This happens at both a symbolic and literal level. The association to the hands and its connection with labor is evident in the lunchbox and its contents. Within the lunchbox, beautifully crafted wooden toolboxes hold an MP3 player with recorded interviews, printed material, and small clay sculptures formed by the gripping hands of the laborers themselves. The collaborative aspects of the these archive lunchboxes legitimizes the laborers and their stories, giving them a conduit and providing access to their stories for those who will encounter these sculptures.
Considering that these lunchboxes will be situated within a gallery context may be problematic. A primary concern would be determining how the reading of these archives is affected by the context of the gallery, particularly one located within an educational institution. What does it mean when these stories are being shared within a site that is not necessarily accessible to the laborers who are telling the story? Will the focus be placed on the objects utilized to illustrate their plights or the stories themselves? Could the possibility of situating an exhibition or event closer to the laborer's waiting site been more effective in conveying their narrative? If so, would this possibility have negative implications for the laborers? Would the laborers, understanding their own undocumented status, show up to this event?
It is important that this first exhibition will take place in a venue within an educational institution. Primarily, it will allow an audience of students, instructors, and artists access to a model of artistic production that is scarce in this city. Specifically, it may provide a form of affirmation for student artists interested in the socio-political dynamics confronting our communities at this point in our history. The collaborative nature of the work demands a shared authorship that raises questions and points at misconceptions associated with the mythology perpetuated by many academies of the autonomous artist striving to develop their own “unique” personal vision. It reminds us of the importance of the individual to the integrity of a given community and the importance of the community in the formation of the individual. It illustrates how our autonomy goes only as far as the society that we live in allows for and that artist's are not immune or invincible against all the social forces influencing us on a daily basis.
In reviewing Gleeson's project it has become evident that what may have started as a project conceived around the parameters of a grant application has now evolved into a committed partnership between the artists and the social network they have forged. This project and others like it provide some nuance for an art scene that still hasn't solidified it's own identity and is grappling with it's own notions of community. It is my hope that Gleeson becomes an active participant in these dialogues and that the conversation continues on to those who may provide a source of funding for these types of highly collaborative and largely ephemeral artist-driven projects.
Learn more about Las Manos Negras on the project's Profile page.