Oscar René Cornejo:
Artist Oscar René Cornejo talks about burning his home down as a child and other early artistic endeavors.
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Oscar René Cornejo earned an MFA from Yale School of Art, a BFA from the Cooper Union, and was a recipient of the J. William Fulbright Scholarship for research in El Salvador. In 2004, he cofounded the Latin American Community Art Project (LA CAPacidad), where for seven years he directed summer artist residencies to promote intercultural awareness through community art education. He is a founding member of Junte, an artist project based in Adjuntas, a town in the mountains of southern Puerto Rico. His work has been included in exhibitions at Radiator Gallery, The Queens Museum, Princeton University, and Diverseworks, among other venues. He currently teaches at the Cooper Union.
NEIL: I’m so happy to have with me on SHE’S A TALKER, Oscar René Cornejo. I fear my pronunciation probably leaves something to be desired.
OSCAR: No worries. It sounds good. You can’t, unless you want to start rolling your R’s that’s another thing, but it sounds pretty good to me.
NEIL: Okay. Well, I can roll an R but I think this is like a little metaphor for how I can go through life. It’s like, I’d rather not try and then not be accountable for having tried, in terms of the rolling the R’s, is a metaphor for me.
OSCAR: They say that some, even though I do roll my R’s, sometimes my parents tell me I exaggerate the rolling.
NEIL: What do you think that’s about?
OSCAR: I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s growing up and teaching others to roll the R. And so you backlog some self consciousness in the back of your head and you. And I have no idea, but it’s like, “Oh, okay. That’s a little extra, but it’s fine.” It’s like, “All right. Well, I’m always caught in between where I’m like, English is my second language here. And then I visit El Salvador and then Spanish becomes my second language over there. I’m stuck in between.
NEIL: Do you have anything that you would consider your first language?
OSCAR: Yeah, I guess just loving to manipulate material. Just fucking with shit since day one. I remember, I don’t know what age I was, but they call me ranch burner back in El Salvador. Because I was always tinkering with things. And that led me to burn a ranch down when I was a small child.
NEIL: What is a ranch? A whole house?
OSCAR: There was apparently an original ranch burner in El Salvador and my parents came over. I don’t know if it was four or five, and I burned an apartment down and only left everyone with the clothes on their back.
OSCAR: They got wind of it in El Salvador. And apparently when I burned it down, was the week that the original ranch burner passed away. And so I inherited, Quema Rancho, is what they called me, ranch burner.
NEIL: Wow! And where was the apartment that you burned down?
OSCAR: Houston, Texas. So it was an apartment unit, I think on the second floor they say.
NEIL: And how did you burn it down? You were how old?
OSCAR: I don’t know, like four or five. I do have a memory of lighting something on fire, like in a closet, on a shiny surface. It was like the dry clean plastic that you cover your clothes. And I think the plastic caught on fire and it turned into liquid flame or something. And it got out of hand.
NEIL: Do you put this on your art resume by the way?
OSCAR: No, but it used to be my Instagram profile, ranch burner, in Spanish. Like what the hell is Quema Rancho? Well, it’s Quema Rancho.
NEIL: I was expecting it was your first enchantment with materiality, the translucence of the dry cleaning bag. And do you need it to do an intervention on it by way of a match?
OSCAR: Yeah. Well, before that there was a draw towards the flame and I would set up stuff and then burn them down. I guess maybe I was a little pyromaniac or something, but I was always fiddling with things.
NEIL: How do you succinctly describe to someone who doesn’t know you, what it is you do? We’re talking like you have an elevator ride with them.
OSCAR: That’s a tough one. I guess I reflect on the histories that I come from, that at a young age I had no idea that I was a part of. And so to make visible the history of my immediate family and community through objects. I feel that growing up my community and my family had a lot of PTSD due to the civil war conflict. They absorbed and internalized a lot of violence and were displaced. And so where do those energies go? And so I tried to, in my head, reconcile those energies in the types of objects that I’m making. So the objects become, not necessarily a MacGuffin. You have a conversation around the object, but it’s something where you start project and amplify things that are considered whispers or not important.
NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
OSCAR: And so it becomes a speaking piece, something to a screen in order to project light onto and see what shadows have been cast onto that screen.
NEIL: How would your parents describe what it is you do to their friends?
OSCAR: They probably have no… They’re like, “Oh, he’s obsessed in working with kids in villages somewhere, like missionary work. Not that it’s futile, you should just get a real job.
NEIL: Can you just for our listeners, describe the work that you’re talking about, that they would say he’s a missionary.
OSCAR: I spent a lot of time, when I was still an undergrad, I felt the closing door or light of losing that community and facilities. And while I was, I think towards the end of sophomore year into my junior year of undergrad, I started inviting my peers and friends of my peers down South to central America, offered them free studio space, but they had to teach two to three days out of the week what they knew, to the community.
And so it was this mutual cultural exchange. It was a way to put our theories into practice and to anchor some of our ideas around some of the injustices that we thought were going on in the world. And then hitting hard reality too, with trying to do idealistic things in like a place with no running water, for instance. How do you run silkscreen workshops for that? How do we basically apply these idealistic notions of what a community should be developed when there’s these conditions present? Like people living on dirt floors, or no running water, but they still should be exposed to culture and not just be treated as a workforce thing.
OSCAR: So, yeah, that’s the missionary work.
NEIL: And your parents don’t like that you do this work or what did they say about it?
OSCAR: I know you mean well, but these people don’t care kind of thing. You need to take care of yourself because it’s always about the struggle and surviving and taking care of the family.
NEIL: In their eyes?
OSCAR: Yeah. It’s like, “Why do you care so much about these other people?” Kind of thing. And I was like, “Well, that’s exactly why. Because you’re saying that.” Because someone said that about you when you were displaced immigrant fleeing death squads in El Salvador and you’re being dismissed as criminals or cockroaches in a new society. And so that’s exactly why I do it. They don’t really know, I guess the resume and what that means. They don’t know Cooper Union or… I don’t want to start listing names. But Things that-
NEIL: I’ll do that for you at the beginning.
OSCAR: No. Other people, their parents would be very proud. And for me they’re like, “What about being a mechanic?” Which I don’t mind, I would love to fix cars and pay bills that way. But they just want something that they feel that it’s stable and it’s not fleeting. I guess they’ll stop thinking that way if I get a tenure track position or something.
NEIL: There we go. Which if there’s any justice, which there isn’t, but if there were, and maybe there will be, you would have. It sounds like your parents’ histories really informed the themes in your work. Have they informed the making of the objects, the form of the objects?
OSCAR: I don’t know something about just seeing my mom always cooking and my dad always working in constr… Working with their hands, their hands were always manipulating things. And I think I just tried to copy them. And then as I got old enough, I ended up joining them. I would clean houses with my mom and, or being assistant to my dad on construction sites.
I didn’t see it immediately. It became very evident much later, I would say even into my early thirties, when I started to be very over scrutinizing every decision I was making, formal decisions. Then I started seeing fabrics, draped fabrics. Thinking about changing beds and pillows or washing clothes with my mom. And then carpentry. Even before carpentry, I got into woodcuts a lot, carving wood to make images. And so that was the close connection that I had with my dad, as far using knives and tools and manipulating wood that eventually evolved into carpentry and fresco, which I feel share a relationship to the construction site. Working with plaster and covering surfaces. That instead of using cement, you’re using plaster, but there’s a certain affinity, it’s physics and it’s chemistry that made it easy for me to be drawn to those mediums as an artist, just the visual vernacular of the construction site starts to come into the way I make decisions in the studio. Yeah.
NEIL: If your parents were looking at, let’s say an object that you made, how would they describe that?
OSCAR: I had an installation at the Queens Museum, and I think that my mom would respond to the fabrics, the naturally dyed cotton fabrics.
She would associate them to altars. And my dad would respond to the material, the construction, like joints and carpentry and chalk lines and tar. He would respond to the materiality, that it’s being used in a fine art setting, but they could easily translate to finishing the surface of a countertop or coating a surface of a wall or cutting into and repairing a broken window by putting new two by four studs. And so he would respond to it in a construction material manner.
NEIL: Deep. Did any of them-
OSCAR: What’s a right angle. What’s not. It’s like, “Oh, that’s not meeting,” and stuff.
NEIL: Do you get critiques about your construction skills?
OSCAR: Oh yeah. It’s still a little wonky.
NEIL: That’s what they would say. I would say your work is often strategically wonky. Wouldn’t you say?
NEIL: If I looked at, not consistently, but if I see something that isn’t a good right angle, I feel deep trust that that is significant. Is there ever any joking about like, let’s set this on fire, burn down the ranch.
OSCAR: Personally, I do have a fantasy of a body of work in a certain timeframe to, instead of keep paying storage on it. Like burn all that series of work and take the ash as pigment and a one monochrome painting. So I’ve consolidated and condensed the entire body work into one piece.
NEIL: And would you call it… How do you say ranch burner?
OSCAR: Quema Rancho’s dream or requiem or something. I don’t know. I don’t know why.
NEIL: Not to put titles on your piece, but I could talk about this forever, but shall we, Oscar, move to some cards?
OSCAR: Yeah, sure.
NEIL: First card is, the uncanniness of bird songs. Not just the sound of them, which can sound so electronic, but how the sound feels disconnected from the movement of the bird’s mouth.
OSCAR: I have a bird myself. I have a parrot.
NEIL: What’s your parrot’s name?
OSCAR: Her name is Pepper. She’s charcoal, peppery and has a bright red tail like a red pepper, but she’s also sassy and spicy in character. So it’s just like pepper all over. Uncanniness of bird songs. Yeah, it’s like really weird to see this static beak. You usually associate lips and you think that lips and the tongue is super important to articulate the sounds, but their beak is just static and just opening and shutting and they have a stiff tongue. And so that for me is so super weird. And especially with birds that speak, right?
OSCAR: How did you just say that word without lips and very stiff tongue?
NEIL: Did you ever say that on a date?
OSCAR: No, I think they bring it up. Especially parrot tongues, it looks like the head of a penis.
NEIL: Oh, really.
OSCAR: Yeah. It’s weird.
NEIL: Wow! Sexy.
OSCAR: Yeah. They’re like, ugh. But I think that the way it operates is that they have amazing muscles in their trachea. And so their tubes or their trachea is so sophisticated that it does all that movement for them to create the sound of words. Or even like a chainsaw.
OSCAR: It’s so weird.
NEIL: You’ve named something though, so the uncanniness is about the lack of lips, primarily, and also the stiff tongue, which I haven’t observed before. But now that you say it, yeah, I could see that.
OSCAR: I think that’s what it is. It’s kind of opening and shutting that beak and these sophisticated sounds are coming out of it. Like it’s being let loose. It’s being let loose, like prerecorded.
OSCAR: But it’s this kind of internal thing that you’re not seeing that’s moving in such a complicated way, that’s manipulating those sound waves that create such a beautiful thing.
NEIL: I love it. It just sounds other worldly. It’s like an electronic, like I said, it has an electronic quality to it or something.
OSCAR: My parrot sounds like a robot or a voicemail. Usually there’s parrots that sound phonetically like their masters or their owners or whatever you want to call it, their companions. But mine sounds like a terminator. It’s like, “Hello Oscar,” like, “Stop it, stop it.” And they pick up electrical sounds easily. Those are first things that she picks up, are those electrical sounds. And I’m sure there’s other things on higher frequencies that we’re not even catching or lower frequencies. That I think it is, I’m wondering how it sounds to a bird. It sounds electronic to us because of the type of limited hearing that we have, but to birds could sound completely, I don’t know, godly.
OSCAR: They also have ultraviolet, like I know parrots have ultraviolet vision. They can see…Right? And so certain flowers look like landing strips and we just see a little flower.
NEIL: Oh God. I spend so much time thinking about what things look like to animals, especially my cat. But just generally it’s the eternal question. Because cats, we have our cat, Beverly. He just spends so much time looking, and so you spend a lot of time looking at them looking, and I’m just wondering like, what is it?
And you know that they have different color spectrum, as you say, are available, or in the case of predator animals, I know they have different contrast or reduce variation in color as a way to target and focus their attention. So I have a pet that prays on your pet. How do you feel about that?
OSCAR: I’m always flirting… We were talking about, when things go out there, there’s always that danger. Like God, my roommates, I’m in Lyden at the moment, and my roommates have two cats at this farm house and one’s definitely a killer. And it’s not like you want to prevent anyone from doing what they got to do, but it’s like you just got to monitor and be very mindful. I haven’t been put in a position of a cat where you see those memes where the parrot is hanging out with the cat or it’s on top off the cat and they’re cuddling.
But there’s always that sense of danger in the back of my head, because just a cat scratch can kill a bird, just the bacteria in its claws.
NEIL: Yeah. I never trust those videos of the… It’s such a trope in internet culture in generally this idea of animals getting along. And I think I read something about that in certain interpretations of the story of the garden of Eden. It’s that before the fall there was no predation. But whenever I see, yeah, the cat snugging with the parrot, it’s like, “Well, what comes next?
OSCAR: Yeah. Well, and that’s where the hard wired nature of the animal. Like you can socialize a parrot but it’s still wild. It’s not domesticated like dogs.
OSCAR: And they even say that with cats, if the cat’s were just-
OSCAR: 20 pounds larger, they will totally kill their owners.
NEIL: I hear that. Totally.
OSCAR: They’re like,”You didn’t feed me, you got to feed me. All right?”
NEIL: Yeah. Next card. How everything changes at the cart stage of an online transaction, like in sex when you say, “I’m close.”
OSCAR: I’m more curious what you have to say about it.
NEIL: All right. So this is something I had the other day, I’m just going to talk about Amazon here, speaking of birds. So when you’re browsing on Amazon, it’s a guilty thing I try not to do. But when you’re browsing on Amazon, there’s a kind of casualness. It’s like, this is what other people say. You might also like this, click here. And then you put it in your cart, and okay, it’s in your cart and maybe you go look at something else you need. But then I find, once you hit the cart button, everything gets really fucking intense. It’s like, “Do you want to buy it in one click? “Where do you want to send it?” And it just reminds me of like, okay, that’s like in sex when you go from just fooling around to, okay-
OSCAR: That moment.
NEIL: I’m going to come, or I’m getting close. Do you feel that at all?
OSCAR: Yeah. I think, I think when you started sharing your relationship to that, it is being like overly self aware and not being… When you’re shopping, you’re kind of swept off your feet. You’re shopping, you’re only gazing, you’re going through, you’re not over analyzing. And if you are over analyzing, it’s like really to legitimize your buy, it’s like in the reviews and all that. But it’s still part of the courting, the dancing of that final… that final click. And I feel like going to the cart is somehow replaying all the foreplay and then putting up the possibility of criticizing, “Oh, I did that wrong.” Or I took too long. It’s like, “Do I really need to buy all this stuff?” It’s like you’re overthinking it. And it’s funny you say that because you’re kind of reliving your life right before you come.
And for some people, they say when you come that it’s a little death.
NEIL: Oh right.
NEIL: La petite mort.
OSCAR: Yeah. And so I think that the cart or the clicking is like seeing a little portrait of how you lived your life in that shopping cycle. And it’s like, “Do you really need that?” When it just started with a casual, like, Oh, and then being captivated and seduced by the product, and you courting it and being coy and all that stuff. And then you come to the finish line, it’s like, “Oh, was it all worth it?”
NEIL: Oh my God. I love it. I love it. It’s also a little different for me. I think this also speaks to, well, it speaks to a lot of things, but I find, like in sex, not to go too deep into it. There can be a certain part of me that’s like, “Okay, this is so intense. Let’s just get this over with.’ So with shopping, it can also be like, “Let’s just resolve this. Let’s just-“
OSCAR: Well, they even add more stuff. It’s like, “Is this a one time buy? Is this a 12 week recurring buy?” Or, “We do have warranty on it. And if you want one its used at 30 days.”, How committed are you into this this relationship?
NEIL: Because you’re trying to come, you’re trying to make the purchase, and then they’re like, “Yeah, do you want to subscribe? Can we do the subscribe and save?” Because they have you, they have your right before you’re about to come.
OSCAR: Yeah. And sometimes, yeah, there’s a shame of, of course it’s like I definitely don’t shy away at it from commitment, but the kind of sincerity, and maybe impulse is a strong word, but the initial seduction or eye contact, the initial moment of connecting and organically following through to then start to rationalize it. Like, what is this? Is this going to be a longterm thing? When you could just be in the present and enjoying the moment.
NEIL: But that also is a big part of like, I don’t know how this extends to the Amazon shopping cart stage. But so much, I think of the work in a relationship where you’re already fully committed is finding your way back to those initial seductions where the pleasure is not knowing, you know what I mean?
OSCAR: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
NEIL: It’s just in your cart.
OSCAR: I think that’s romance right there.
NEIL: Neoliberalism and feeling virtuous about donating your plasma. I noticed I had COVID as, maybe, no. And as soon as that happened, this is early in the pandemic. It was like, “Well, you get to be a hero by donating your plasma.” And there was a type of language around it. I often feel that way about like, to me, blood drives or the height of neoliberalism or walk-a-thons. It’s like, “Why should this be something that gets this outsized validation?” Why isn’t it just something you do? I don’t know. Does that resonate with you at all?
OSCAR: Yeah. It’s the same… Valentine’s day or you show your love by how much you spend. Yeah. It cheapens things. It should be natural for you to want to share your plasma because you’re trying to find a cure. But it doesn’t mean it should be tied to heroic deeds. But it’s not in your nature to supposedly share and care about the other, you’re just trying to survive. But if you do this, you’re a hero. I start to think in relationship to neoliberalism is that you start to create human emotions and human qualities into commodities.
NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right. Yeah. Yeah.
OSCAR: Because what they’re asking is literally a piece of you and your time, which is precious. And so, what do you have for me, for me to take time out of my day? What do I get out of it?
NEIL: Right. And so what they’re offering you is the feeling of being a hero rather than whatever you wouldn’t-
OSCAR: Whatever sells at the moment. If it’s xenophobia or nationalism, or whatever’s kind of hot at the moment. They’ll use something that’s very natural and a part of us, but it’s been pushed down. It’s not practical to evoke those feelings of like, yeah, I am contributing. I guess it’s social capital to think that you’re courageous and a hero, short of like giving you money.
And so they’re selling you an idea for you to donate instead of it being like, I don’t want to say social duty, but your care and love for your people.
NEIL: All right. Some closing questions. What is a bad X you take over a good Y?
OSCAR: Huh. A bad X over a good Y. I’m going to expose myself here. I’ll take a really funny, dumb cartoon over a good independent or supposedly good independent film. Because I’m maybe spending a little bit too much time watching the good independent films for preparing for a syllabus or something, I’ll probably take a break and breather for a good bad episode of cartoon network, which I haven’t done in a year or something. But now you’ve reminded me.
NEIL: When the specific limitations of quarantine, however you want to describe this current situation around COVID is over, what are you looking forward to?
OSCAR: When it’s over?
OSCAR: When I drive through New York, I do get nostalgic feeling when people are basically not social distancing, they’re not wearing masks. They’re like, “Oh my God, you’re killing me.” But I’m like, “Oh man, I miss just going out to a bar and just meeting with a bunch of friends with the cacophony in the background of-“
OSCAR: Connecting on a social level without the invisible boogeyman.
NEIL: Right. So you’re having, when I look at those scenes and I think when a lot of people look at them, they’re like, “How fucking irresponsible.” Like a lot of judgment, a lot of anger. You’re secretly not feeling that or not so secretly not feeling that.
OSCAR: I do feel that, but then there’s this aftertaste of like, “Oh man, it would be nice to just go it all, just to be social in that manner.
OSCAR: But then going back to what is COVID or this situation presenting is presenting a situation to be more nuanced of the different types of way that we are social. For instance, in this, like what we’re doing now, it’s like another element of… And so that has been amped up like FaceTiming and connecting with people more frequently, that usually it would be related to a zip code if you’re not in the city. Like, I probably won’t see you. So there is a silver lining of gaining that type of social connection, even though it’s mediated through technology that is being lost by just the kind of serendipity of going to a bar and then bumping into someone. Which in New York is I think the great thing about New York. Is walking through space and just meeting someone by chance and like, “Oh, what are you doing here?” And then you grab a coffee or a beer or something.
NEIL: Let’s say I never liked that kind of stuff.
NEIL: I’m so relieved not to have that opportunity, but that’s me. But on that note, Oscar René Cornejo, I try to do a little of what about if you were trying to do that thing you were talking about before of like doing a more flamboyant rolling of the R.
OSCAR: It’d be like, Oscar René Cornejo. Yeah. So there’s a little like, okay, that R was a little bit millisecond too long.
NEIL: Right. Oh, I love you. I love talking to you. Thank you for making the time. I do feel like this is a model for me of like, God, a hopeful model for how one can exist in the world without physical presence. Thank you for being on SHE’S A TALKER.