Since 2010, the Mexican sound artist has been reflecting, recording, documenting and exhibiting the symbolic, personal, financial, legal, civic and human costs of Mexico’s War on Drugs.
Images: Courtesy of Israel Martínez
Issue: #2, Summer-Fall 2015
Wars are loud, saturating our environment— immediately and indirectly— for on-the-ground witnesses or those experiencing media. Your recent sound work, “South of Heaven” addresses the Narcowars in Mexico, can you tell us about the environment in which you are recording?
It’s very difficult to explain what’s happening with drugs in Mexico, it’s not about the corner gangs nor drug dealers nor the consumption of drugs. My country is one of the most important drug distributors in the world, mainly of cocaine and methamphetamine, and probably the biggest exporter to the U.S. It’s a business that includes the participation of governments and “independent” companies called “cartels” in addition to banks and other particular businesses.
The war is about the control of drug flows— that is, the trafficking activities throughout several regions with the aim of maintaining the U.S., or other countries, domination of the routes. It’s about power and unfortunately thousands— more than 100,000 innocent civilians— have died since the announcement of “La Guerra Contra el Narcotráfico” by ex-President Felipe Calderón in 2006. The government declared a war against the cartels, supposedly, but also supported the biggest cartel and started to defragment the others, provoking battles throughout the country. This never ends. There are only changes in the intensity of the regions throughout Mexico. For example, during the last few weeks the horror returned to my birth city, Guadalajara. Just at this moment, I’m reading on Facebook about the sound of a shooting a few minutes ago, it’s a post by a friend who is studying the possibility of sound in relation to photography. She’s feeling the terror and reflecting on the sound as well.
South of Heaven at PCFS: Post Colonial Flagship Store, Vienna.
To relate the sound, how does the “South of Heaven” installation situate the listener?
“South of Heaven,” a collaboration with my brother Diego Martínez of Lumen Lab, is an installation including sounds from the “War on Drugs” such as shootings recorded by the military or hitmen as well as demonstrations from citizens. We made copies of the recording in the form of pirate CDs, which abound in Mexico, and the “promotional” graphic of our “product” is a neocolonial map of the U.S. and Mexico. The map explains some basic points: the drugs are supplied to the U.S., then the U.S. sells arms for all the conflicts inside Mexico and the earnings from these two points are invested in banks and companies in the U.S. Meanwhile, there is a bloody panorama in Mexico. People ask if stopping the use of drugs is the solution. Obviously not.
The installation was created for “PCFS: Post-Colonial Flagship Store,” an exhibition focused on a critical and at the same time sarcastic approach to neocolonialism in several regions of the world. This was in Austria, and we presented the installation as a “Tianguis,” a traditional Mexican market stand which often sells pirated goods.
You can only listen to the CD-Rs if you use headphones, whic The installation was created for “PCFS: Post-Colonial Flagship Store,” an exhibition focused on a critical and at the same time sarcastic approach to neocolonialism in several regions of the world. This was in Austria, and we presented the installation as a “Tianguis,” a traditional Mexican market stand which often sells pirated goods.
You can only listen to the CD-Rs if you use headphones, which is up to you. The other sonic element is a composition made with the sounds of cocaine inhalation, broadcasting via a pair of speakers. As a stereo work it is the ambient music of our market stall. I have to say that in Mexico, there is a weird need to hear music almost all the time, so people working in street markets listen to music during their workday. Well, the sound of consuming cocaine, one of the most widely distributed products from Mexico, is also part of our background music.
The third element of the installation is a personal c h is up to you. The other sonic element is a composition made with the sounds of cocaine inhalation, broadcasting via a pair of speakers. As a stereo work it is the ambient music of our market stall. I have to say that in Mexico, there is a weird need to hear music almost all the time, so people working in street markets listen to music during their workday. Well, the sound of consuming cocaine, one of the most widely distributed products from Mexico, is also part of our background music.
The third element of the installation is a personal chronology of events or trafficking-related situations in which I had been. From innocent friends who have died in shootings, or police arrests in airports, among other experiences. Since I made the sound work in Spanish, a video monitor is used to present a translation of the text, without sound. This part of the installation is meant to relate the proximity of our experience, that the situation is affecting almost everyone, even if people are unaware of their participation.
In “South of Heaven,” there are sounds of demonstrations and shootings as you mentioned, but also excerpts from Calderón speeches, celebrations, protests, mothers wailing— which is very dramatic and piercing— to interviews with apprehended suspects. How did you capture these sounds?
Yes, there are interrogations with capos and hitmen, as well as messages from cartels. They usually kill hitmen from another cartel and then post video messages to their rivals. Heads and body parts are shown— it’s a sinister massacre. I took all of these sounds from the Internet as there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of videos related to the Narcowars on blogs and YouTube. It’s incredible who decides if they are to be censored or not and this raises the issue of what constitutes materials to be deemed “illegal.” In this case, this media is exhibited without issue on the Internet and I see this as a parallel to our “illegal” pirate CD-Rs.
The writer Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, who inspired this piece with his book Campo de Guerra (Battlefield), says that Mexico is a country of “alegal” culture, by which he means, it’s not legal nor illegal, it’s “alegal”— something entirely outside of the sense or concept of “legality.”
Cocaine is probably the most profitable drug in the world and is a part of daily life for the populace. The sound of sniffing cocaine is the sound of bloody capitalism, the sound of the cartels and the sound of the hypocrisy of our governments.
I wanted to ask you about two sounds, the heavy breathing and the voice masking used in the interrogations. Both make me wonder about how embedded the recordings are…
The breathing you hear is part of the original recordings, and mostly recorded on mobile phones. The military and federal forces sometimes also record videos of the shootings and upload them. It’s incredible. They are showing us their power and once again, the issue of illegality is raised.
The recorded interrogations are with capos or hitmen who have been detained. There are also interrogations with kidnapped members of the cartels. Actually, there are some sounds from beheadings as well, maybe that’s the reason you hear heavy breathing, it’s probably someone dying, as someone likely is right now somewhere in Mexico.
I also wanted to ask you about the sound of cocaine sniffing…could you elaborate on why you made it an axis of the work?
Cocaine, methamphetamine and other chemical drugs have changed the context of drug trafficking in Mexico. When I was a kid the business was cannabis and on a different scale. It was micro-distribution, mainly family businesses. I suppose everything changed when the U.S. started to send D.E.A. and C.I.A. agents with the pretext of fighting drugs although the actual purpose was to make a strong network, and to meet a new demand for more specialized substances. “Cocaine is the new oil,” says the journalist Roberto Saviano. The percentage of profits is enormous and presents a new panorama: bigger cartels, worldwide distribution, more advanced weapons, and many more thousands dead. Cocaine is probably the most profitable drug in the world and is a part of daily life for the populace. The sound of sniffing cocaine is the sound of bloody capitalism, the sound of the cartels and the sound of the hypocrisy of our governments.
We know Saviano has been persecuted since the publication of his book about Italian mafias, and I suppose it isn’t that big of a problem if a foreigner writes about Mexican mafias, as is the case of John Gibler who wrote, To Die in Mexico. It’s completely different if a Mexican journalist or researcher writes— it’s very dangerous. For me, it’s important to research, reflect and make connections between several points, globally. Cocaine is a big economic factor in our world and I think it’s vital to discuss the issue, but we know the mass media attempts to misinform and influence reality so we need more writers, artists, researchers, academics talking about these issues in popular culture.
Along with some of your previous sound work, is “South of Heaven” an attempt to go where journalists are nervous to investigate?
An important point in my work is to try to understand, analyze, reflect and generate a dialogue from the sound as a possible source of sociological information. I lived in Guadalajara when the “War on Drugs” of Calderón arrived. A couple of friends died, there were several attacks around my home studio and innocent people as well as policemen and hitmen died. We started to live scared. As the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles and the curator Cuauhtémoc Medina say: “What else could we talk about?” That was the name of Margolles’ exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale. I just started to open my ears, and obviously my eyes, to the issues surrounding me, just like the local police helicopter patrolling my neighborhood 12 hours a day for several months in 2011.
Israel Martinez. Image: Javier Calderon.
Is it correct you were almost arrested for recording in a park?
This happened in 2011 with the general paranoia of organized crime. I was recording sounds in a nearby park around 9:00 PM. A neighbor probably called the police because they saw a “drunk man” walking with headphones and “something strange” in his hands. A patrol officer approached and asked me what I was doing there. They didn’t understand that I was recording sound and I suppose this is a common experience with people making recordings around the world. In the end, it wasn’t a big issue with the police but the incident led me to make a piece as a re-creation. I included some common phrases from the ‘90s when the police used to stop all the punks and young rebels in town. We ended up shouting back at the police and almost fighting. I decided to make a reenactment with a child and titled it, “Deprivation Rehearsal” (2012). When you translate police phrases into the voice of a child you can really sense the ridiculousness of their words.
I also wanted to bring up your work, “People Behaving as Real Animals” which evokes the visual imagery of kidnapping. It’s seems as if you are trying to find a sense of freedom and expression in this captive situation.
When I made “People Behaving as Real Animals” (2011) I was in fact thinking about the soundscape. Generally, we remain relatively passive when we are recording, and it obviously depends on what you are recording, but I was imagining the possibility of building “new” soundscapes through memory, mimesis and communication beyond articulated language. As an exercise in improvisation, three collaborators and myself used bandanas in order to fully concentrate on the sound and to avoid directly looking at the camera. When I looked into the camera viewfinder, before recording, I suggested we disrobe. We discussed a “natural” nudity and thought that being without shirts was a kind of “natural” state for us as young people; being totally naked was more artificial. We recorded the improvisation and when I checked the video it looked like a kidnapping scenario. Others felt we looked like guerrilla fighters. I thought, sometimes these “animal” gestures say more than articulated words. That’s how it seems in countries like Mexico where politics don’t attend to the demands of people. Sometimes noise is a great communication tool, contrary to what the theories say.
People Behaving as Real Animals, video still.
You also continued with a “Part 2” of the work, why?
I am constantly hosting workshops and continue to make improvisations so each session is unique as each group of students is different. Here, it’s important to talk about the loss of liberty. Young people have been kicked around by the government’s strategies of trying to create a consumerist and unthinking people. Zombies. The youth have not been physically kidnapped but mentally kidnapped. So, these young and vibrant students are trying to rebel, to shout and to express something that is not clear because most of the time they are desperate and they don’t know what to say. So once again the noise is important for their expression.
People Behaving as Real Animals, video still.
In another earlier work you walked around the Jardines del Humaya, an extravagant cemetery in the town of Culiacán. What drew you to that place— was it a mix of investigation as well as feelings of loss?
This is a weird place located in the “capital” of Narcoculture in Mexico, and for Saviano, it’s probably the Narco capital of the world. Culiacán is a great place with lovely people— and just that simple comment is a part of the endless contradictions throughout the world of drugs, trafficking and cartels. For decades now, Narcoculture has integrated itself into the fabric of Culiacán. Jardines del Humaya is— and this might sound crazy— a nice place to visit during your stay in Culiacán. I mean, not necessarily as a touristic point but if you know something about Narcoculture, for example in literature, you’ll probably want to visit the cemetery if you like weird architecture or just as an amateur anthropologist. I went to the graveyard with friends of Culiacán and saw the extravagant tombs, some are the size of a house or even bigger. I wanted to make field recordings there and was surprised to see several workers digging and building new graves. Actually, a lot of new graves. This digging is the sound of death, violence, corruption, pain and the inconsistencies of my country.
You noted that you did not want to take pictures because mobsters frequently visit the area…
When I was walking and recording the soundscape I saw something more twisted— there are banners that people leave with messages for their dead. Sometimes it looks like the dead are talking to the living because there are dozens of syntax errors. The contents are brutal: a mixture of pain, melancholy and sometimes rage or other feelings beyond our “senses.” I wanted to keep some of those messages but I felt that it was dangerous if I took pictures of all of them because sometimes mobsters visit the graves of bosses or colleagues. Instead, I started to record the contents through my voice. Several months later I made the piece, “In Memoriam” (2012), translating these banner messages using Google Translate and its default “voice” and it turned out the translation errors were similar to the original syntax mistakes. I then mixed the soundscape with these messages, as a journey into Jardines del Humaya.
In a second phase, I invited artists whose work I admire to listen to the piece and have them send me audio for a longer work. Francisco Lopez, Murcof, BJ Nilsen, Janek Schaefer, Manrico Montero, Lumen Lab, Rogelio Sosa, Simon Whetham and other friends collaborated. I once read a comment by Christian Marclay saying that audio can be exhibited in endless ways, you don’t need an institution nor a physical forum. I found that interesting so I decided to put the audio available as a free download on our website. I then started to promote the work physically with posters and postcards, distributing them everywhere so there’s a possibility that thousands of people can download and know the work.
As an artist also making audio documentary as counter-media, how do you see “La Guerra Contra el Narcotráfico” portrayed by the mass media in Mexico?
It’s ridiculous because the mass media never presents the facts clearly, but you can see everything surfing Internet, from specialized Narcoblogs to videos on YouTube. In any case, no one has the “truth” about these topics, not even the journalists or the researchers. The relationship between the cartels and the government is never clear and I even think that the military, the federal forces or the same cartel hitmen are aware of this ambivalence. Roberto Saviano and Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez are aware of this ambiguity too. It isn’t clear for anyone. I suppose that only the heads of government know. There are approximations to the situation on TV news, newspapers, political magazines such as Proceso and the Internet press, but no ones knows the truth. I insist. As an artist, I need to use all possible forms of media and forums to invite people to reflect and to materialize a certain kind of political pressure.
I think we’ll need to pause our conversation for now…to close, what forms of solidarity have you observed or participated in? Is solidarity the “bigger picture” people need to see?
After the disappearance of forty-three students from the Normal School of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, at the end of September 2014— a case still unresolved— there were massive demonstrations throughout the country, even in areas considered to be apathetic about political involvement. The government has made every effort to insert oblivion into the population but I think that the levels of corruption and economic inequality, as in most parts of the globe, are facing increasing pressure from social networks on the Internet and from the formation of groups, collectives and civic organizations.
As a civilian, I demand. As an artist, I put some of these topics on the table, sharing them with anyone, and it’s the same case for a lot of artists in Mexico. A big part of contemporary art in this country is openly political and demanding. Outside of their artistic practice a lot of artists are associated with some thinking or activist collective. In my case, along with my brother, we are supporting the people from a town located in the Mexican west, Temacapulin, which will be flooded for the construction of a dam. If you want to listen, visit our site, www.suplex.mx and look for the Temacapulin Project. We are constantly supporting friends from several activist groups, recording and sharing sounds, creating images or promoting causes. Unfortunately, the more social movements become active, the government seems to tighten the lower classes, which are the majority and still live in a cultural poverty that only benefits the upper classes, the owners of the country. Power wants us to be ignorant…and to be deaf.