Q+A with Adrian Aguilera + Betelhem Makonnen

yo soy aquí / i am here installation view | Image courtesy the artists

An artist-run cooperative gallery space, ICOSA, features an eclectic mix of twenty artists working in a diverse range of styles. Since their first exhibition in April 2016, ICOSA has put on nine two-person exhibitions. The most recent being Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen’s yo soy aquí/ i am here, on view at ICOSA until October 29, 2017. From Monterrey, Mexico and Addis Adeba, Ethiopia respectively, Aguilera and Makonnen’s conceptually rigorous show engages the experience of trans-national identity through a “spatial and ontological exploration of our relationship to here.” Sitting in the center of the gallery discussing the show, the three of us got excited about space, time travel, rocks, multiple perspectives and the relational nature of identity.

The following interview was conducted by Jessi DiTillio and has been edited for both length and clarity.



yo soy aquí / i am here installation view | Image courtesy the artists

Jessi DiTillio: ICOSA has been hosting these two-member shows for the past year, but it seems like most of the ICOSA members haven’t worked together as fully as you two chose to, merging your practices into dual made objects. Can you tell me about some of your earliest conversations about this show? How did you set the stage for this collaboration?

Betelhem Makonnen: I think it was Adrian that approached me during our second ICOSA meeting, before we even built out the space. I hardly knew Adrian. I knew his face but I didn’t really know him, and he just walked right across the room and said, “Hey, me and you are gonna be together,” and I said, “Ok…” [Laughs]. Of course, through building the space together we actually became friends, and I realized there was so much resonance between our approaches to the world and our approaches to our practice. We’re both process-based, and our processes are glacial, but our execution is fast.

Last January we began the conversations in my studio, where we met every 10 days or something. We’ve been calling it our baby because it has had a real gestational period. Adrian would come, and we would sit for an hour and just talk about ideas we were thinking about without talking about anything concrete. If we weren’t both so process-based we’d probably have been exhausted with each other. There weren’t expectations.

These conversations went on for so long that I think we actually learned to see each other in the dark. We were able to meet each other in that space where you are conceptualizing something, and we learned to speak a common language. When I accepted my MFA program at SAIC I had to leave Austin for about two months, but it didn’t matter, because we kept having these conversations online. This show is really built on those conversations.

JD: So Adrian, what was it about Bete’s work that drew you to her? How did you know she was the one you wanted to work with?

Adrian Aguilera: In those meetings at the beginning of ICOSA, I thought Bete had a similar kind of situation like mine–not being from one specific spot, or one place, and that she was coming from another country. I thought she had the same sort of perspective, same sort of vibe, and her practice was really strong. We started to talk about what we had done and what we could do together. We didn’t want to just talk about objects but talk about ideas… from all those conversations I felt things were moving in the right direction. We would have meetings once a week that felt very consistent. Nothing was getting done, but we started to make some very abstract sketches. I feel very close to her practice, and at the same time she understood my practice.

BM: I think another person might have felt nervous about the abstraction of our conversation, they would have been like, “What is the thing??” but neither of us were nervous at any moment. I think this has to do with us being diasporans. We live for solving problems, and we both approach art as problem-solving. One image that sticks in my mind… in my studio we talked about the fact that when we were both born in different times in different countries, our grandmothers were holding us and thinking about our futures as grandmothers do. They both imagined futures based on their historical past, but it’s like we traveled to another planet, really. they never could have imagined where we would end up, the reality we’re in now. As a result of this conversation we started to think about time travel, not in a sci-fi way, but in the way it really happens with immigrants, through transitions, trans-ness.

The way we would navigate languages was interesting. It allowed us to conceptualize this invisible thing we were building in the dark. Hah, it would probably have been frustrating for anyone listening to us because as we talked we’d pick any language we had access to depending on what we were talking about, and we would switch between them.

AA: Yeah, I don’t speak a lot of Portuguese, but a lot of it is related to Spanish. I found that when she was speaking Portuguese to me I totally understood what she was saying, even when I didn’t know the words. So, I’d speak Spanish, she’d speak back in Portuguese, and then we’d continue in English, or whatever…

black Earth (first portrait), flipbook, 366 pages on black and white, edition of 50, 2017

JD: What did you learn about your own individual practices from watching each other work?

AA: Well, we have totally different mediums so we had to leave our comfort zones, which wasn’t easy. But we were very confident in each other and what we had done previously, so we were able to trust each other. It was about releasing a part of our practices to create space for the other person… this allowed us to really think through what the best medium would be in order to actually achieve that idea. We knew collage and video would both be part of the show but we didn’t know how exactly.

BM: We had no idea!

AA: Even in the pieces that relate more to my practice or to Bete’s, we still went through this hybrid process and we’re both involved in every piece.

BM: We got rid of control, we got rid of hierarchy, and it forced us to enact what we believe in as our ideal of how life and art should work. Adrian is so meticulously organized and has an incredible attention to detail, which is completely different from me, and that affected me for sure. That really benefited the work that we produced. We both have this idea of a movable lens–going from macro to micro and that relates to the aerial view that appears in a lot of Adrian’s work. I think that multiple-perspective view also relates to the immigrant and diasporan experience. As an immigrant you really cannot have a fixed lens. Time bending and space bending was in the conversation from the beginning and shows up in the work.

AA: As a visual artist, I haven’t really had the experience before of releasing some part of my work to allow space for another. The experience of trying to understand someone else’s medium and how they are using it was really significant for me. It has made me want to look for more collaborations. I think as visual artists we don’t have this kind of experience often, unlike musicians who do it all the time. We usually work more as individuals.

JD: Let’s talk a little more specifically about the yo soy aquí. It is obvious this show is deeply researched, but it doesn’t hand over all its secrets. Could you tell me a little bit about the research process and the source material you were working with?

AA: I’ve been working with these NASA books and images for a while. As an artist I’ve always been interested in the way the media recreates images of nature, and NASA has been one of the institutions most in control of our image of earth. We became interested in the aerial photos of Earth distributed by NASA. One of the early images that was most widely circulated featured the African continent; at some point, for political reasons, they switched the image for one featuring America as the central continent instead. Bete pointed this out to me, and it really bugged us, and became something we wanted to research more.

This aerial view of earth was new in the 1960s. For our grandparents this was new, they had never seen the earth from this view. Now we’ve all seen it, and the image is everywhere–on t-shirts, on bags, on souvenirs. So we decided to focus on earth as a place, as ourselves, as our own home.

BM: Adrian has a huge library of NASA images, first edition official books. And again, going back to that idea of who we are, we thought about the closeness of that history–our parents and our grandparents who did not have this conceptualization of the world as we think of it now. I come from Ethiopia, you know, and this world was not at all possible in my grandparents’ imagination. Adrian comes from Mexico, his parents from a rural area, where you do not have that kind of conceptualization.

My practice has to do with looking, perception, how looking is actually a projection from the inside to the outside, and how the way you’ve absorbed information has an effect on what you see. Reality is created, it’s not a thing that’s out there. So, messing with something basic like our image of the earth, fucking with that image is political and has a destabilizing effect that forces you to reconsider things. It is almost like an update or an upload into your system.

History and philosophy inform my practice a lot, so we looked at Deleuze and his conception of mountains being dry islands or the multiple or hybrid view. We even looked at Buckminster Fuller and his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. We were looking at literature, history, philosophy, and the NASA images. There was a lot of reading and discussion for the show.

yo soy aquí / i am here installation view | Image courtesy the artists


meanwhile (live transmission), video and window frame, edition 1 of 3, 2017 


interview sources, rocks, artificial turf, vitrine, 2017 | Image courtesy the artists

JD: In the statement for the show you two, “invite visitors to consider one’s existence as mobility.” The concept of immigration seems to serve as a larger metaphor here, for the ways that identity and self may be relational. Can you elaborate on that concept?

BM: The prevalence of rocks in this show has a lot to do with that, looking beyond just the NASA images, at geology, the formation of the planet itself, we tend to forget that we are on that thing [pointing at an image of the earth] which is a rock, and it is spinning. Reality is mobility. It’s changing and spinning and moving all the time, even when it seems still.

AA: Like in this piece here [points to interview sources], we didn’t think about these rocks as static, we thought of them as clocks. They are time and they are made of here. We don’t see them as inactive because they are moving through time.

BM: I like to call rocks illegible calendars. They’re these mute clocks, they’re time. And so for us, going back to the political side, being who we are and where we’re from and having to deal with a mostly single narrative history that excludes people like us, immigrants, pointing to the motion in rocks became a way of highlighting the invisible movement at the core of being. Again, this is where our grandmothers come in, where our backgrounds come in.  When history does include us it is often in only a sort of walk-on role, but we wanted to say, “No! We are here.” In our current political climate, immigrants are treated like extras. But we are central to the story.

perception is memory is perception is… (detail), 2-channel video, video projector, TV, mylar, mirror, fan and rocks, 2017 | Image courtesy the artists


I am a mountain, video, monitor, rocks, 2017 | Image courtesy the artists

JD: I think the way the totality of the show spatially affects the viewer is what I found really exciting, and it seemed like a new direction for both of you as artists. Rather than feeling like a collection of individual pieces on the wall, the exhibition kind of feels like an immersive installation. Y’all accomplished that with these simple moves, like the curved wall.

AA: Yes, we describe the curved wall as a gesture rather than a piece. But the way we were presenting our work in this show felt very important to the effectiveness of the work.

yo soy aquí / i am here, construction paper, silkscreen print, 17” x 11”, 2017 | Image courtesy Erica Robert Pallo

JD: How does language play into this show? You foreground language with the title’s word play. There seems to be a toying around in this show with the relationship between language as a communicative device and language as a symbol.

BM: We both have the benefit of not being monolingual and that was really key for us because when you speak multiple languages you realize that words are not the things themselves, they are just the reference. The title is about the relationship between ser and estar, the two different forms of the verb “to be,” a distinction you only have in Portugese and Spanish. It is such a fundamental reference to acknowledging that there are multiple dimensions of being here. This is a distinction that would take many paragraphs to explain in English, but in Spanish it is perfectly clear.

AA: Yea. So we decided it would be more complicated to try and translate this idea in a deeper way into English, and the confusion of the other language and the inability to translate it expresses something about the immigrant experience as well. Just using another language was really the only way to express the space-time relationship that was central to our concept.

BM: Language is always a translation from the ‘it” to a word. Language has a way of actually killing mobility and that is our whole problem with dominant histories. History as told through language captures a single story.

AA: Yes, a fixed story.

BM: But there’s nothing that is completely fixed. Language is how we think, language is how we create reality, and that’s why as artists we use these other mediums to try and re-conceptualize reality. We must resist the fixedness of language. That was fundamental to the whole show, realizing language’s role and how you can fuck with it and how you understand it.

yo soy aquí / i am here installation view | Image courtesy the artists


L: untitled (spaceblax), paper collage, 20” x 16”, 2017; R: untitled (dymaxion celestial mapping), paper collage, 20” x 16”, 2017 | Image courtesy the artists


yo soy aquí / i am here bibliography

The Story of the Earth – The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet
Robert M. Hazen

Desert Islands: and Other Texts, 1953–1974
Gilles Deleuze

How to See the World : An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More
Nicholas Miezoeff

Nostalgia de la Luz
Not Rated | 1h 30min | Documentary Film 2010

La Realidad no es lo que Parece : La Estructura Elemental de las Cosas
Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
R. Buckminster Fuller

Poetics of Relation
Edouard Glissant


yo soy aqui / i am here is on view at ICOSA through October 29, 2017.


Jessi DiTillio is a co-founder of the Neon Queen Collective, a writer, a curator, and an amateur potter. She is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Art + Art History at UT Austin, and the Curatorial Fellow at the Visual Art Center. Learn more about her work at www.NeonQueenCollective.com.


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