Los Out of Focus Nuyoricans, ADÁL, 1996
Prolog Poem by Rev. Pedro Pietri, 1996
Published by Harvard University Press, 2006
Los Out of Focus Nuyoricans
Out of Focus Nuyoricans is a series of twenty computer-generated portraits created by the Puerto Rican visual artist ADAL in 1995-96. The photographs are exhibited along with a poem/prologue entitled, Nuyoricans Out of Focus, which ADAL’s collaborator and kindred spirit, the poet/playwright Reverendo Pedro Pietri, composed after seeing the photos for the first time.
Since his emergence as an artist in the early 1970s, ADAL has created photo-collages and foto-novelas influenced by the Post-Surrealist photographic movement of the early 1960s and 1970s. Most recently, his installations and multi-media performances have been inspired by the Nuyorican tradition (individuals of Puerto Rican parents born and raised in New York or Puerto Ricans who came to New York and embraced its hybrid condition). In 1994 ADAL and Pietri founded El Puerto Rican Embassy, a concept already established by Ambassador Eduardo Figueroa, who founded El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico in 1979. ADAL and Pietri developed El Puerto Rican Embassy concept further by appointing Ambassadors of the Arts, writing a Manifesto and Spanglish National Anthem, and creating its first Puerto Rican “passport”.
The Out of Focus Nuyoricans series evolved from the “passport” photographs ADAL began to take for the El Puerto Rican “Passport” Agency of the “Embassy”. This agency issues “passports”, designed by ADAL during special performances in which the artist takes the photographs of individuals who apply for the document; each “passport” contains the Republic’s manifesto, written by Reverendo Pedro Pietri. A communique issued by El Puerto Rican Embassy in August 1996 explains the “passport’s” function: “the passport is the official document which defines an individual’s nationality, an important sign of identity which you need in order to travel outside of the country and in some cases within . . . Puerto Ricans, given our condition as North American citizens have been without a symbol which affirms our cultural identity. To this end, El Puerto Rican Passport was created.”
ADAL’s “passports” evoke the use of passports as an artist medium by other artists, both Latino and non-Latino, in this century. They especially recall those produced in the recent past by the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar and the Cuban-born Felix Gonzalez-Torres, but ADAL’s passports are distinguished from these works in that they are individualized for each “citizen” and issued in the context of performances. Their status as works of art that playfully disrupt officially sanctioned systems of identification and control also recalls the passports produced by artists associated with the anti-art tradition of Dada and Neo-Dada, including Fluxus impressario George Maciunas.
Like conventional passport photographs, ADAL’s Out of Focus Nuyoricans series are headshots – in this case, of Puerto Ricans. These individuals include both well-known cultural figures, such as the actor Raul Julia, the musician Tito Puente, and the artists Antonio Martorell and Pepon Osorio, and everyday people, such as the superintendent of ADAL’s apartment building in New York City and the old man who plays dominoes on his block. However, they differ from conventional passport photographs in that they are intentionally out of focus.
For ADAL, the aesthetic of the out-of-focus expresses the political and psychological conditions of the Puerto Rican and Nuyorican identity. The political status of Puerto Rico has been in debate since it bacame a commonwealth of the United States in 1952. While commonwealth status gave Puerto Ricans some of the rights granted to citizens of the fifty states, such as the right to travel freely within the U.S., it withheld others, such as the right to vote for U.S. president unless one has established residency in one of the fifty states. Reflecting the island’s ambiguous political identity, various groups have lobbied for one of three traditional options: continued commonwealth status with greater autonomy, statehood, or independence from the United States. According to ADAL, this political condition has had psychological consequences for many Puerto Ricans. Although Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States, they are often compelled to live as virtual foreigners in their own land – a situation that produces a sense of psychic fragmentation, of being split between two identities, which is reflected, for example, in “Spanglish”: a mixure of English and Spanish that is spoken by many Nuyoricans and which is the official language of El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico.
ADAL’s out-of-focus photographs give visual form to this political and psychological condition of ambiguity. It becomes almost impossible to identify many of the sitters in these works without looking at their accompanying titles. It even becomes difficult in many cases to determine their age, race and gender – the physical characteristics that governments and social bodies often use to identify, classify and control individuals. The fact that many of the sitters look unsettling, reflects the threat that their perceived “otherness” poses for the dominant culture and the systems of identification and classification it uses to maintain its dominance. It also playfully undermines the negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans prevalent in the mass media (the scanning lines visible in many of the photographs evoke television in particular), which have practically rendered their social contributions to North American culture unrecognizable.
Yet, ADAL and Pietri ultimately embrace the state of being “out-of-focus” as a cause for celebration, rather than despair. As Pietri wrote in Nuyoricans Out Of Focus:
“Domino players are the only athletes Capable of focusing! Everyone else is still trying to make it To the Hall of Fame of Insignificant Success! Yes, painters And very few Poets who really don’t know it are auto-mechanics At heart and wonder why their art goes unrecognized by Wall Street? They don’t feel good about being out-of-focus (when they should Be content they cannot be figured out) and use the out-of-focus Category to the glory of their advantage . . . “
Fatima Bercht, Curator
El Museo del Barrio, NYC
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