Tracing a line through collective image-making and systems intervention, artist Sol Aramendi describes sixteen years of socially engaged art practice in conversation with transnational arts researcher Sara Angel Guerrero-Rippberger. Using lived experience as a departure point, the artist explores counter-systems, building collaborative artworks around resistance and solidarity. Traversing dimensions of socio-economic status, language, labor, gender, sexual identity, body politics, critical pedagogy, and immigrant rights, she employs photography, performance, and the moving image as tools for social activism. From her home base in Queens, NYC, Aramendi’s collaborative practice challenges the norms underlying museum engagement, while re-defining the lens through which institutions view immigrants. Embedded in her practice is the use of digital image-making as a social stage for immigrant issues.
Arriving in Queens
Between 2002 and 2005, Sol Aramendi developed a creative process from the womb-like darkroom of analog photography. Already a successful architect in Buenos Aires, she began exploring the architecture of representation, drafting images of the city through black and white film and group excursions. The daughter of a boat-maker and a teacher, the creative vessels she designed allowed her to move from an inside space into the outside collective experience. Transmitting models, measurements, and strategies became a way of navigating counter-narratives within systems of the everyday.
In 2004, Sol immigrated to New York, quickly entering networks of Latin American artists and activists engaged in representation and learning to survive in the immigrant economy of enclaves and innovation. She exhibited early works in Praxis Gallery and Exit Art—photo essays of Topacio Fresh, an Argentinian trans icon, and María, a Mexican garbage collector in Queens. Under the name Project Luz, she taught Spanish-language photography classes in underground immigrant artist spaces, improvising cultural hubs clustered around artist studios in warehouses of industrial neighborhoods. The idea was to teach self-empowerment through art. Project Luz was an exercise in education as an art form and an act of collective arrival.
Sara: How did you first conceptualize Project Luz?
Sol: When I started in Buenos Aires, we visited architectural sites and neighborhoods, taking photos and then returning to the lab to develop and discuss texts about image-making and the city. That moment was about black and white photography.
After migrating, I brought the texts I had used to discuss photography, place, and film. The workshops in Long Island City were slower, more poetic. They centered around each participant finding their artistic self and communicating through art. It was about the time and space of being inside a photo lab, like the one we created in Local Project (a Queens art space where many Latin American artists meet). Spending hours with your work in that uterus of a darkroom. Time was different in that space—far from the madness of the city. I decided to write letters in my broken English, to request free Spanish-language tours from all the local museums. Museum community engagement did not exist then. But since we were in New York, with all the masterpieces and big museums, the idea was to be able to appreciate those works up close and in person as part of the creative process.
Everything was about the act of arriving. As migrants we occupy a space that is nowhere. We need to get past the shock of arriving in a place where you have to find a job and start working right away, where you don’t know anyone and all of the systems around you are new. One can get lost in all that. The workshops presented a way to see yourself in the context of your own story, examine who you were before migrating, who you are now, and imagine who you will be in the future. The act of seeing and understanding yourself through art was a process. We spoke a lot about working from the surface to heal something inside.
A community was created. People arrived alone and shared the artistic process of self-portrayal. Project Luz was founded during a period when communication was slower, and it impacted everything around it—artist studios, museums, libraries, and the artist collective, Local Project.
There, within that community, other issues were brought to the table. One was the issue of labor.
Photography as an Excuse
Between 2004 and 2008, several thousand people answered Sol’s local newspaper and radio advertisements offering low cost and free photography classes in Spanish. Project Luz grew from 10 students to 800. The content broadened; the format stayed the same. Inside windowless corners of warehouses turned into makeshift classrooms with scavenged furniture, students passed around yerba mate brewed by the artist, and shared the moments caught by their cameras. They turned the lens inside and outside, contemplating arrival in a city already a muse in film history.
Sol was invited to bring Project Luz to the New New Yorkers Program at the Queens Museum and Queens Library, and later to other museums. This brought thousands of new museum participants to empty galleries previously disconnected from the immigrant communities that surround each museum in New York City. Project Luz inserted a new system into the institution by working from within an immigrant world defined by labor, limbo, and isolation. Documentary in nature, its collective visual language represented a first-person format and an expression very different from the image-making about immigrant communities of this time, far from media narratives and documentaries.
Sara: The idea of visually representing someone who needs help can be complicated. Organizations can fall into the trap of poverty porn when trying to create a visual campaign about rights. Even when aiming to promote greater social justice, they use an aesthetic language that portrays the person who has migrated as victim or object of poverty rather than hero or human being. How have you navigated this territory of images with Project Luz?
Sol: Mostly by creating stories from the point of view of the immigrant, with dignity. Sometimes the empowered community upsets an organization. What’s important for me are the methods we can use to amplify immigrant voices, especially now.
Project Luz was founded around the time when digital photography appeared as an accessible tool. With adapting from analog to digital came the need to teach computer tech. It was more expensive at first, but then less without prints and developing. Everything became faster. And we lost that moment of being alone in the dark. All of the early students went on to teach and become photographers. Students began to earn money as photographers, which created the need to provide different kinds of instruction: studio photography workshops or social photography relating to documenting quinceañeras, weddings, baptisms, and local celebrations. We began thinking about how to use photography and video for work.
It went from being a hobby, or a meditation on life, to becoming a source of income. Having a day job at a deli or a construction site, but also being a photographer. Many work in social photography, fulfilling a need generated by the Latin American and immigrant communities by documenting rituals and life.
Project Luz grew exponentially when the Queens Museum received a large grant to do arts and literacy-based work with immigrant communities through New New Yorkers.
The Museum of Modern Art took six months to answer my letter requesting a visit, but now we still have a partnership, thirteen years later. The Guggenheim, El Museo del Barrio, the New York Public Library, and the Brooklyn Museum are other partners. Before that there were no museum projects in Spanish—the idea of working with the community looked more like charity. Top down.
We worked with community organizations as well, beginning with the Ecuadorian League and a Dominican association, and later with service-based organizations focusing on the immigrant worker, like New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), in Jackson Heights. First, they’d call us to request a photographer to document galas or public events. Then I proposed workshops for workers to use the technologies of image-making not only for self-expression but also to fight for one’s rights. That was how the Worker Studio developed.
Evidence of Being Here
Between 2008 and 2015, Project Luz grew to 2,000 members and they added new themes. Image-making as a social tool was changing with the digital, as was the definition of artistic interventions into the social realm. Art that used education as an artistic medium was re-named socially engaged art, later reimagined through the lens of participation. Social media, applications, and photographic metadata became formats for the artist to explore while continuing to build community through processes of art, research, and visibility.
Sara: Tell me more about the Worker Studio and adapting the Project Luz model.
Sol: In 2012, a new branch of my work came together when I was in the Social Practice MFA program at Queens College. I met artist Barrie Klein, who was working with unions. We held a meeting to connect two groups that did not get along: undocumented day laborers and union workers. I created a “Learn Your Rights Through Your Cell Phone” workshop and began collaborating closely with NICE and The National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON). I was hired as a community consultant by Cornell University for a project on wage theft. This is when I began to work on the Apps for Power project, after learning more about issues surrounding day laborers. The Worker Studio developed through using art processes to understand labor, community, and rights.
Lawyers involved in the project described the importance of the photograph as a legal document. The geographic location, date, and other metadata embedded in the photograph can be evidence in cases of wage theft. For example, day laborers are picked up on 69th street in Queens and transported in large vans by the contractors to a work site, who promise to pay them on Friday. After a week’s work, when the worker tries to claim their pay, the contractor says “I don’t know you, you were never here.”
A photograph taken at the work site is proof that the person was there. We made lists of the kinds of photographs you can take for evidence: a selfie including the construction site, the beginning of the wall and after it’s finished, the permit and the patent. The organization can help collect payment and empower workers so that they have physical evidence of their work and can be more aware of the systems of exploitation. The idea is to educate to prevent. Even so, it’s difficult when contractors are subcontractors of subcontractors, a chain of misery created by the mega-company. It’s important to understand the situation of precarity. One needs the money now to pay rent tomorrow— the workers do not have the luxury of waiting two years for the Department of Labor to bring a case to judgement. But even with workers who grow wise to the system, tomorrow a hundred more arrive at the same job pick-up site who don’t know anything about it and will agree to work for less. They fall into the same trap.
We decided to make a smartphone app to report the theft of wages using image as proof. The digital social network was a public stage where we could call out employers and share information amongst laborers. My role was to facilitate the design of the app between workers, software developers, organizations, and lawyers. The first step was to reach a collective understanding of how an app can help with accountability. I defended the manner through which decisions were made collaboratively every step of the way. You cannot skip the democratic process even when things need to be done quickly.
The app launched a week after Trump won the presidency and the organizations went into emergency mode. The project bore fruit when a network of relationships was created, expanding ways of thinking. Today, the organizations position themselves differently in relation to others, with a sense of collective identity.
Traces of a Process
From 2015 to 2019, Sol expanded the dimensions of labor and participation through new collaborations with the immigrant coop of Apple Eco Cleaners, Brightly Cleaning Coop, Mujeres en Movimiento, La Colmena Community Job Immigrant Center in Staten Island, and the L’Unicorns, a group of transgender migrants from Latin America.
The collective force of Project Luz continued as a photography school for adults, mitigating the marginalization implicit in the act of migrating. An archive of digital and print material developed with the self-publishing of books and newspapers, an online image repository, and publications in local Spanish language press.
Strategies for using art as a tool deepened: image-making as therapy, as economic tool, as trace, as social recourse, as public stage, as critique of systems. Across all, photography opened a door to participate in one’s own social, personal, collective and economic development. The artist consulted with experts from all sides to investigate the colliding worlds of labor activism, day laborers, domestic workers, human trafficking, immigrant communities, urban displacement, gentrification, and transnational identity. With academics, lawyers, mothers, migrants, software developers, students, transgender asylum-seekers, and workers, her strategy was the same: coach the group in identifying and building an art project around a social justice issue. Some brought greater visibility to an issue, while others discovered inequities they hadn’t seen before.
Sara: Describe your process.
Sol: I think about how the project can continue to function without me being there. A NICE staff member once commented about how after I left, the workers continued applying the process we learned together to other areas of their life and work: ideating, designing, concretizing, and presenting projects.
I talk about trusting the process. This kind of art practice that involves long-term community engagement is not like the act of creating a painting. It doesn’t have a predictable end. Often when I enter a community space, lingering conflicts come to the surface. I generate tension just by being there. I notice conflicts that are present but not named: inside that doubt and distrust is where I feel most comfortable. This is my territory. I work in that tension. The process of explaining and externalizing hidden issues is an important piece of collaborative work.
Strategies for using art as a tool deepened: image-making as therapy, as economic tool, as trace, as social recourse, as public stage, as critique of systems.
Sometimes I work with the poet Claudia Prado. She introduces writing exercises at that moment when tensions begin to rise. The group reflects and writes. With time to think about their own questions, they listen to each other, and give depth to the issues they are confronting. With writing comes a different kind of patience, another way of working.
I learned that creative exercises offer a better way to generate questions from within the group, because sometimes you produce what you want to hear, instead of really allowing participants to reflect and share their opinions.
The process usually begins with the traditional roles of teacher and student transforming into a collaboration. The method of engagement is to get to know one another, listen, understand the kind of campaign or strategies enacted in that group. Conflicts, issues, and questions are named. We start with what I know: photography and organizing. Gradually we explore art actions and begin to question pedagogies pertaining to culture, identity, and mobility. We change roles, explore new disciplines, and find new collaborators.
This process can also help rebuild a group. When there is chaos or when collaboration breaks down, bringing this process to bear upon a group can be like weaving, reconnecting individuals collaboratively. A kind of repair through art.
Sara: Tell me about the research behind your art.
Sol: Now I’m working in collaboration with immigrant women who work cooperatively. For two years, I’ve been investigating the benefits and problems related to cooperative incubation, searching for factors involved when difficulties arise. Reading about the subject, I realized that the voices of the workers within the cooperatives are not represented. The experts quoted are always academics and project administrators with master’s degrees in economics. They make projections and try to foretell statistics, but the voices of the workers are absent.
Sara: What happens after you finish a project?
Sol: There are always traces left behind by the process. For example, the asylum case lawyer who works with several members of the transgender group of migrants called the L’Unicorns described a solidarity created through our seven-month collaboration for an installation at the Leslie Lohman Museum, consisting of an altar for Day of the Dead, a video work, and a collective poem written with other trans groups. She said, “By working together artistically, the group has become engaged as activists, more willing to support each other in their cases and to step forward to try innovative strategies. Presenting cases together makes each one stronger.”
After we finished our collaboration this past February, the L’Unicorns had their first case approval for asylum based upon gender identity persecution, and a second in May. They are now creating their own projects for museum spaces and personal spaces.
Sara: In institutional spaces, you inserted your practice of educational interventions. From education, you pushed through to exhibitions with a participatory approach.
Sol: My strength is to facilitate making space for immigrant communities, and craft those opportunities in cultural spaces. Museums are moved by funding trends and current directors. Their model is to not become too deeply committed. They may take money that causes harm to the same communities that they want to include as audiences. I’ve observed institutions having discussions about creating a sanctuary while firing DACA employees. Artist educators are put in increasingly precarious conditions. Community programs are cut, and curators spend that money going to Venice. Remember when they wanted to do programs for immigrant women but didn’t allow kids? It was a form of segregation and a contradiction. There is a gap between discourse and the facts. If we want to be inclusive, we need to consider the economics of the community, their strengths, and their realities.
Sara: Let’s return to the beginning with the idea of the imaginary state that inspired you to create Project Luz.
Sol: Immigrants inhabit an imaginary space when we think of our presence as temporary. It’s convenient for others that the immigrant is always thinking about returning. In this state of limbo, one lives without rights and is susceptible to abuse and exploitation. This imaginary space was the engine behind Project Luz. The act of inhabiting and appropriating the city’s spaces compels you to arrive. The idea behind Project Luz is to dissolve the illusion of being here temporarily, and re-affirm the space of the worker. We’re here and we’re not leaving.
Transnational arts researcher Sara Angel Guerrero-Rippberger studies and leads initiatives in the overlapping fields of participatory practice, education, art, and sociology. She holds a PhD in art theory from Chelsea College of Art & Design, and was the founding manager of the New New Yorkers Program at the Queens Museum, a program that continues to serve immigrant communities through the arts (now in its thirteenth year). Sara serves on the board of the Queens-based art space Local Project, Inc. and is a research consultant at Baruch College. Since 2005, she has led art initiatives in collaboration with local communities, institutions, and artists in Queens, Brooklyn, Mexico, London, and San Salvador.
Sol Aramendi is a socially engaged artist working with immigrant communities throughout New York City. Her participatory practice promotes change around fairer labor and immigration conditions. She is the founder of Project Luz, a nomadic program that uses photography and art as a tool of empowerment.