On Aug. 6, the electronic synthesizer duo Red Culebra will be at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, which currently has the exhibition MYR asking people to consider the millions of years before — and to come after — humanity’s time on earth. Red Culebra’s experimental music composition Let Us Speak Frog responds to the “Holocene extinction — the ongoing extinction event caused by human activity.” They will draw on Indigenous storytelling to sonically transform themselves into mythical creatures and attempt to apologize for human destruction. Along with Cristóbal Martínez and Guillermo Galindo, who make up Red Culebra, there will be two dancers who will use interactive technology to control projected animations.
Red Culebra, founded in San Francisco, has performed throughout the Bay Area at venues including San Francisco Art Institute, The Lab, BAMPFA, and Southern Exposure. Their website states, “Inspired by their complicated post-Mexican backgrounds, Galindo and Martínez create and perform rituals based on cycles of repetition and uniformity.”
Both artists recently had their work acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Along with their own projects, Galindo teaches at California College of the Arts and Martínez, formerly, at San Francisco Art Institute. In a video interview, they talk about transforming sonically into flying snakes, having a reciprocal relationship with nature rather than exploiting nature, and how the dancers will use video game controllers to operate the animation in Let Us Speak Frog.
How is the performance related to Indigenous storytelling?
Martínez: Whenever we make a work, we think about it within the context of experimental music and contemporary art, so we create a lot of performance art. The performance art is strongly influenced by a philosophy of Guillermo’s that is tied to the Americas and the relationship between Mexico and the United States and very much figures into my background and my upbringing, because Guillermo oftentimes will identify himself as a post-Mexican artist. In many ways, I’m also a post-Mexican artist because the border crossed over my family. My great-grandfather was born in the Republic of Mexico before the border had crossed. Looking at [his] birth certificate, he wasn’t born in the U.S. He was born in [what was then a part of] Mexico, which is now North Central New Mexico in the United States.
A lot of the work that we do comes from our Indigenous Latinx backgrounds, the people that we’re from. A lot of times in the Latinx world [Martínez uses the gender-neutral term for people of Latin American origin or descent], our stories are framed within the colonial context as folkloric. But that’s part of the decolonization of Indigenous knowledge, that these are not “folkloric” but coming from … the spirit of the storytelling [and] the Indigenous people that we are and that we’re from. I think that’s an important distinction to make because it brings borderlands context to that conversation, which is related to, but also varies from, the American Indian context.
On your website it says you create and perform rituals based on cycles of repetition and uniformity. What does that mean to you?
Galindo: It’s very important what repetition means in music. Especially in terms of the idea of linear time against circular time — the Western idea of linear time as a phenomenon, as opposed to circular time that is the way of consuming time that exists in the rest of the world. Both have their advantages, and both are very important concepts of time.
If you go to the latest minimalist movement, starting with Erik Satie and ending with Terry Riley, you can see that repetition is a very important element, borrowed from the idea of experiencing the moment, as opposed to creating these moments and resolving the dissonance in a linear way. It’s not only the idea of experience but the idea of an organic process to bring a feeling of stasis, or of spirituality, or of magic, into the place. It’s the same feeling that we get in the narratives of Native Americans, that it’s not only a story, but it brings you into a spiritual realm, in which you connect with things by changing the perception of time.
Martínez: The tendency to make this kind of work comes from where we were raised and how we were raised, where we grew up. I grew up in North Central New Mexico. … Part of the cyclical nature of life [there], and then living along the Upper Rio Grande and being a part of an agrarian society, is that there are protocols and ceremonies for keeping time, for managing water, and for tending to crops. So, it’s very ceremonial, and there’s a lot of repetition associated with that because it’s a cycle. … It’s a set of gears and wheels that are moving round and round. … That’s very much a worldview. … Guillermo and I, we operate that way and not because we choose to but because that’s who we are. That’s how we were raised.
On your website you have something about denying the public the opportunity to fetishize ceremony. Would you talk about that?
Martínez: One of the things that we see a lot in popular culture is a misrepresentation of Indigenous people, and that misrepresentation is usually in the American imaginary … in ways that are false and damaging. Our work is not to perpetuate these colonial traditions and not to entertain audiences, [especially] when most of the commissioning organizations are run largely by boards that don’t really have a large representation of people of color.
We try to create art that requires our audience to have to work so that the experience is participatory and that there is a real tangible protocol communicated that is tied around reciprocity. That’s the idea that listening is just as much a gift as it is receiving because the kind of deep listening that Red Culebra requires is … exhausting. You know, you may have to shift in your seat a couple of times, because the purpose of the work is to engage collectively, audience and performers together as a gathering for the purposes of seeing something, learning something, experiencing something in embodying something together. That’s the difference, as opposed to the idea that you’ll be entertained by a notion of the noble savage. You’re going to go through a rigorous ordeal with Red Culebra because we are going to collectively do the work of making meaning together.
Galindo: I agree with everything [Cristóbal] says. I’ve seen the work of James Luna, who was one of our heroes. He passed away a couple of years ago, but his performances show very clearly how the Indigenous culture is fetishized. He used to go to Fisherman’s Wharf dressed as a Native American with feathers and put up a sign that said, “Take a photograph with an authentic Indian.”
It seems like you’re selective about where you play. What drew you to the McEvoy and MYR?
Martínez: Well, the opportunity was presented to us by curator, Elizabeth Thomas. Liz has always been such a great friend. She approached Guillermo and me on the current exhibition … and I told her the story of Red Culebra’s Let Us Speak Frog, and it’s just the perfect puzzle piece. We got to meet with the director at McEvoy and her crew, and it quickly became apparent to us that this was an excellent organization to get to build a relationship with and work with because they were going to really support our project, and they were going to put resources into it so we could realize a larger-scale version of it.
Could you talk about the performance? There’s flying snakes and dancing and animation — it sounds pretty intense.
Galindo: I have been working with Christoph Steger who’s [an assistant professor] of animation at CCA. He’s done wonderful work in the past, and he’s a very talented animator, and he and Cristóbal have a very beautiful way to make this possible with sensors. … What we have is the dancers activating the animation as puppeteers.
Martínez: That’s right. What the performance is comprised of is contemporary dance, experimental electronic music, and live, interactive video. As a way of expressing the score that we’ve written, we transform ourselves into flying snakes, during which time we visit many imagined ecologies around the world. It’s an attempt to speak to frogs in various environments, not to apologize on behalf of humanity but to apologize personally for having disrupted their health and the wellness of their lives in their natural environments.
There are dancers who are moving and using a hacked video-game device that allows them to control strings, and they become these puppeteers. What they’re doing is they’re influencing digital characters that are being projected on a video screen. … They’re using this game controller. [Holds it up.] The controller used to be sold in the ’90s for Sony PlayStation, and this used to be part of an old golf game. But what happens is you’ll see these joysticks, and if I pull on it, I pull this string out. … I’m really, really glad that you’re laughing or giggling because that’s the idea — to create that kind of laughter, that humor, that curiosity, and that sense of wonderment around a beautiful story that is full of our humanity and that is full of love, while at the same time also full of heartbreak and challenges and difficulties.
Galindo: We’re not only snakes. We’re coyotes and also clowns.
And why snakes?
Martínez: We chose snakes because it’s a sacred deity where we’re from. The idea of a flying snake is common in many Indigenous cultures, but in Mexican culture and borderlands culture, the snake Quetzalcoatl is a creator god. … It is a very important idea in Mexican culture. … So, we decided to use this idea as the method to travel, to also bring ourselves to the level of earth. You know, not to reach for the sky but to lower ourselves closer to the earth, since a snake has to move on its belly. … We’re closer to the earth, and yet at the same time, we’re flying and we’re in the sky.
With the exhibit that’s at the McEvoy now, MYR, the curator wrote that she wants to make earth the protagonist in the show and decenter humanity. That seems like something you’re interested in doing as well.
Martínez: I think that’s fair. The decentering of humanity, at least the way that that plays out as a narrative and a symbol within our score, that’s a very painful process. That’s something we struggle to achieve. We can’t get outside our own humanity, and we seem to struggle to even reimagine it. We are struggling to make the shifts that we need in order to leave behind a more desirable future for our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.
There’s something that is ritualistic and that we see as beautiful that our audiences may see as grisly in the story behind the work, which is that to become flying snakes, Guillermo and I have to amputate our limbs to crawl on our bellies on the ground. And this is the vision of our ritual. It’s referencing the struggle, the pain, the level of sacrifice [required] to transform oneself. So, it’s about trying to leave these notions of humanity behind that are not working, that are not sustainable. In that way, the earth very much becomes the protagonist because life on earth is the priority here, and not necessarily our humanity. Our concept of humanity is failing us.
Galindo: I would like to bring in the concept of what we call the “nagual.” Nagualism is a shamanic practice in which the sacred being either talks through the spirit of the animal or transforms into a given animal. This is found in many Native American and pre-Columbian cultures and Indigenous communities from Mexico where I grew up. This is how we find our natural identity in order to establish a reciprocal connection with plants, animals, natural phenomena, and the environment in general. In many Native American cultures, such as the Crow people from Montana, the Cherokee of Tennessee, and the North Carolina hunters, it is a common belief that mothers learn lullabies from animals. There is a unique song for everybody, a song that is usually revealed directly either during a walk in the forest or a dream.
Through centuries of colonialism, we forgot that nature is part of us, and we established a one-way relationship with nature. That is basically what has devastated, among other things, the frog population. … Seeing everything outside of ourselves as exploitable commodities has brought us to where we are now. We have forgotten that nature is us and that we all are nature itself.