Interview with Camila Tapia-Guilliams, 'Alternative Universe: Visualizing Queer Futurisms'

This interview was originally published in After the Storm, a digital magazine devoted to stories and essays to imagine a future beyond capitalism.

How do we build a better future?

This has been the question that futurists have struggled with for decades, and even centuries. I talk with non-binary artist Camila Tapia-Guilliams about their futurist show at the Stamp Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park, but also about their thoughts on politics, how the fine arts world could do better to foster change, and their favorite piece of futurist media.

Their show runs from February 10th to April 6th at the Stamp Gallery in the Adele Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland, College Park

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Alex: Well, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. … My name is Alex Mell-Taylor. I am a co-editor with After The Storm, which is a futurist publication that is looking to tell stories about a post-capitalist future and imagining what that future could be, which is why I'm so happy that you've agreed to do this interview. … Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are in your own words?

Camila: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be talking with you today. My name is Camila Tapia-Guilliams. My pronouns are they/elle and I'm a mixed media artist, educator, and community organizer. My art weaves together narratives of social sustainability cooperation and anti-capitalism solidarity economy. It also explores my identities as a Latine, chronically-ill, non-binary person. I've done numerous event organizing and education initiatives over the years. My current projects include the Cooperative Arts Cohort, which is a democratic peer learning group that I started last summer. I'm also the co-lead on the Community Team of Anticapitalism for Artists, which is an education community of artists of all mediums that explores politics. I currently work in Community Engagement at the Phillips Collection. And other than that, my other main project that I’m starting is a worker-owned arts cooperative, which is yet to be named, with a few other artistic collaborators. I'm super happy to be here speaking today. I have also had my art on the cover of the Washington Socialist a few times. And so it's great to be with another MDC DSA publication talking about my art.

Alex: So you have the CV, I feel for anti-capitalist artwork. If anyone is qualified, it is you. I wanted to narrow in a little bit on the co-op. I know we talked, not during this interview about how it had a huge impact on your philosophy about art. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?

Camila: Absolutely. So, I guess to spell it out a little bit more before I get into it, currently, I'm working on an artist worker-owned cooperative, but previously I was part of the Maryland Food Collective, which was a worker-owned sandwich shop at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is where I went for my undergrad. The Maryland Food Collective was a business from 1975 up until 2019, which is when I graduated. So it closed the year that I graduated. The Maryland Food Collective really showed me how to imagine beyond what I'd always told myself was the way to sustain myself in a very individualistic sense. I also was in the business school. So, a lot of the kind of rhetoric that I was given about how to be an artist was through this very single-minded perspective of, like, you gotta protect yourself, you're working for yourself.

Freelance artist work is very, very competitive and very individually minded. I really had this kind of competitive, scarcity-minded way of doing business as kind of the background of how artists are told they're supposed to be. But the co-op, even though it was a food store, really showed me a way of doing things through mutual aid and community building in a resilient and democratic setting. And it instilled in me that art and community are really integral to each other in my creative practice personally, as I was one of the event organizers there, and I would host numerous community events relating to all the different kinds of groups on campus. It informed me that collaboration and artistry can take a lot of forms.

Collaboration can be something that's very organic, or it can be something that's very structured into a cooperative model and kind of everything in between. And to me, creativity has become this sort of all-encompassing thing of what's driving you to initiate things and to bring your dreams into being. And so that can be through traditional things like music, visual art, dance, but it can also be teaching, event organizing, creating a business. So it informed me about that and it instilled in me that art shouldn't just be about elevating one voice but providing a platform for community dialogue and with the different kinds of creative outlets, it showed me how all of those can complement each other instead of being distinct and in competition with each other. And what it means to build connections across creative communities.

And around the same time that I was working there, I also had started teaching workshops and facilitating events that was in 2017, 2018, when I was a junior, in my undergrad. And so eventually all these philosophies and practices coincided with my more recent projects that I've been working on like the Cooperative Arts Cohort, my work with Anticapitalism for Artists, my growing arts worker-owned cooperative and the upcoming show that I have at the University of Maryland, which is gonna be in the same building, just two floors above where the Maryland Food Collective was.

Alex: What a homecoming.

Camila: Yeah.

July 2021 Washington Socialist cover produced by Tapia-Guilliams

Alex: The transition from being the type of artist who is in the business center to moving away from that towards the direction that you've just described is truly impressive. That's quite a transformation. … You talked a little bit about vision and collaboration. And specifically, I know you have a show that's coming up, which is about futurism. How would you say that art is important in describing both that future, but also the future in general?

Camila: I think artists are really our best tools for envisioning with the working-class what a more sustainable model for society looks and also feels like. It gives it more texture. It gives basically political organizing a physical texture through visual arts, performance, literature, film, and other kinds of creative expressions. And so with this way of having more physical texture, it makes it more real to people what this imagination and creation and of an alternative to our current systems would look and feel like, and how they can be a part of that. It gives hope and motivation to people to be a part of that process because I think also activism, as we'll broadly call it, is something which is very much a part of burnout culture, in my experience.

And people can really throw themselves into it and want to be so focused on doing the good work and everything that eventually it puts themselves into a position of not having time to replenish or rejuvenate what is a creative energy. And so I think bringing artists into political organizing spaces is really important, not just to bring people into a movement, but also to sustain the movement while people are in it. And when artists are given the proper amount of autonomy and community support, they can be teachers, advocates, or organizers. I mean, I feel lucky to have been given the resources and opportunities to be who I am, and it's still oftentimes something that I'm struggling to do, but I've had enough to get to the point where I’m able to see a future in this.

But there really needs to be more of this support intentionally. I think a lot of times artists are kind of just pigeonholed as being contracted for an art build or something, for mobilization. But instead, if artists are organizers, it means that their aesthetic persuasion is a priority and it's weaved into the fabric of the strategy of a mobilization or of coalition building or whatever the strategy is for. And so this provides kind of an alternate perspective in terms of organizing. And I know plenty of activists and political organizers do put artists as leaders. That should just continue to be the norm.

Alex: So this sort of brings me to my next question and, you've sort of answered a little bit, but I would love to expand on it and talk about other things. So, you talked a little bit about burnout and how people see artists sort of as an add-on to things and don't really include them as part of the process. What would you say some of the barriers are to creating the art that you're doing right now or just with artists in general?

Camila: I would say for myself, being included in this, of course, a lack of proper funding is probably the biggest thing. I mean, it's the class analysis of it, right? If artists aren't given money and material resources, then they're going to do whatever they need to do to meet those needs first. And art is oftentimes a very precarious work situation, cuz you're kind of just moving from project to project. And so, that in no way is an intentional way of addressing systemic inequities. And so that often means that many marginalized voices are left out of this movement of artists who are creating speculative fiction and visions of futurity, or are doing it, in the spare amount of time that they might have or are sacrificing other needs to do that.

But it shouldn't be that way. It should be something that is a priority because people are given the resources to make it one. I think it's pretty clear to me how to do that. First of all, the government should be taking care of everyone, point-blank, period. But what can be done in the meantime while our government is not doing that, obviously, is that activists and policy organizations can really be investing more funding into supporting the arts which are disruptive to the norm of the fine arts world. Which is to say, the norms of the fine art world often includes art that is political, but it's often detached from real collective action. So I think activists and policy organizations can kind of do more incubating of artists to link their organizing work more solidly with culture.

I also think fine art institutions can be doing much more to make their programs equitable. So, their residencies and exhibitions, which means paying artists for their work, because oftentimes this isn't always the case, but oftentimes residencies and exhibitions are not paid. Sometimes you have to pay to do them. And certainly, I've almost never heard of an artist being provided healthcare while they're in the process of doing a residency or an exhibition. And only sometimes is housing provided in residencies.

So it kind of goes to my perspective of artists as care workers for the world, but they're often sacrificing stable and certain care for themselves. And again to be an artist is basically to be placing yourself typically among the members of this precarious freelance working class. Or you have so much privilege that you're not really putting anything at risk, which isn’t to say that people shouldn’t have that, but in fact everyone should have that privilege.

Alex: Yes, 100 percent agree. And often you find that people that do have those privileges become co-opted. Do you find this as well, where the message that they're trying to say becomes co-opted by their privilege where they don't necessarily have the perspective that you might find with other artists of the “freelance class?”

Camila: Yeah. I've definitely noticed kind of a distinction with the artists, just within my own communities … a distinction between people who are like, “Oh, well, why don't you just quit your job and do art?” Or people who are like, “I'm making it day by day and I'm doing art when I can. And I'm sacrificing everything to do art and trying to live this dream.” There's a big distinction there and surely there's a spectrum. … I think a lot of times people are like, “Well, what can I do about it? Even if I have this privilege, what can I do about it?”

But ultimately, when people get in positions of power, at a certain point in their careers, if they've been privileged enough, that privilege has kind of allowed them to get somewhere. Not saying that everyone who ends up in a position of power in their careers has always had an enormous amount of privilege. Certainly not, but for people who have it, it's not always easy for them to really empathize with other people's struggles. And what would actually be helpful to working artists [is] to have more certainty and stability in their livelihoods. Reach a hand out, and work with your community to understand their needs, and try your best to meet them.

April 2021 Washington Socialist cover produced by Tapia-Guilliams

Alex: Transitioning a little bit, you have a show coming up. … Can you tell us a little bit about what it's about? 

Camila: So the name of the show is Alternative Universe: Visualizing Queer Futurisms. It's an exhibition featuring my artwork as well as the virtual reality art of micha cardenas, a trans Latina professor at UC Santa Cruz. And it's on view from February 10th through April 6th of this year at the University of Maryland Stamp Gallery. It places themes of speculative futures, queerness, gender, and survival in conversation with our current world contrasting my and micha's work. As her’s is augmented reality artwork, game design, and trans of color theory with mine being mixed media, cooperative, community building, and anti-capitalist. It asks the questions: what are the responses to the current state of our universe as queer people? And how do we create and build alternatives to this, to survive and thrive?

Alex: Could you give us a little sneak peek into what visions of the future, both you and your colleague, are trying to tell? … We wanna see the show, so you don't need to paint the whole picture. But, like, a little snippet of what that future might be when we go see it.

Camila: Yeah. I'm looking forward to seeing Micha's work in action. For me, it is portraying the struggle ahead of us, but with hope and motivation, through my use of poetic imagery, vibrant colors, and an intermingling of abstraction in figuration. I'm trying to engage the imagination of the viewers so that they can dream of a future that they have a hand in creating. I don't believe in escapist dreams. I portray what we're fighting for and what we're fighting against in as beautiful and attractive terms as I can.

Alex: Could you describe briefly what you mean by “escapist dreams” and then contrast it with what you're shooting for?

Camila: Sure. And I think I should say, when I say, “I don't believe [in escapist dreams],” I mean that's not what I aim to create. I totally believe there's a function for more escapism, for futures that are almost like beyond a known reality, where maybe certain things have never existed. Like, maybe disparity in income or racial capitalism has never existed. I think those visions of the future are beautiful and necessary. But what I aim to portray and explore is kind of how we're gonna even get close to getting there. And so my work tries to interweave both hope and action and love and beauty while addressing the fact that we're gonna have to move through these things to get anywhere. You can't transcend all of the systemic things that are holding us all down without first moving through them. So that's what I mean.

Alex: It's sort of, like, and this is a policy example, so correct me if this is too left-field, but it almost reminds me of [how] in the left there is this community … class reductionists, where they're like, “We don't want to talk about intersectional issues. Let's just focus on the intersection of class. And that will solve all the other things,” even though that perspective is materially divorced from our reality. Does that example make sense to what you're trying to say? Or is that a little too off-field?

Camila: No, I, I definitely see what you're trying to say. I think, yeah, you can't expect just one perspective to solve everything or one action or one movement to solve everything. Because, even though I think most of our problems can be boiled down to capitalism, which is also to say, white supremacy, which is also to say racial capitalism, all of these other things [will exist]. It is important for example, to forgive all debt and that would really materially change many communities of color and their experiences of wealth inequality, but at the same time, it wouldn't get rid of cultural issues of racism. And so, I think everything kind of has to be addressed. And so, yeah, it's I guess what I'm saying is like my vision of the future has a lot of nuance with that. And tries to both be strong and delicate at the same time. It's not something that we can just force our way through to this vision of a perfect future of a utopia. But we have to kind of have a sustained push towards it. And so I think that art and beauty can really be part of that energy of sustaining us.

Alex: Strong and delicate is just such a beautiful way to describe it. I truly love that. … I know that you're planning on doing a pop-up library at the exhibit. I'd like to hear a little bit more about that, but also if there are any other fun details that we should expect at the show?

Camila: Yeah. So I'm really excited. I'm glad you brought up the pop-up library. That should be one really interesting feature. It's basically going to have numerous pieces of media that have inspired my practice and that of micha's. I know that micha's artwork is gonna be interactive. It's gonna be, like, different sort of video games that you can play. So definitely come ready to do things in this gallery, not just to kind of look and be detached, but to really be engaged emotionally, physically, with the work there. I know micha's also gonna do a virtual artist talk and I'm planning to host a series of programs exploring this idea of art as care and power, which is gonna be in collaboration with other artists-organizers I've been building relationships of solidarity with. The opening reception will be virtual due to COVID, but the programs I'm planning will probably be hybrid and we're hoping to have an in-person closing reception. So I think that, definitely, definitely whoever is listening, reading, consuming this out there, you should try to make it to at least one of these programs, cuz I think it'll add a lot to the full story, the full narrative of … what we're aiming to get across with this exhibition.

Alex: Love that. I'm very excited. I'm a huge video game lover. But also just a media lover. … Speaking of that, as a closing question, what is your favorite media about the?

Camila: So my favorite media about the future is this movie Born in Flames. It takes an intersectional feminist lens as to what a social democratic future would look like if you just tried to address class. So it's actually very [close] to what you were talking about before. If it just addressed class and, ultimately, that is a flaw that would turn kind of the politics into a bit of an aesthetic because not addressing racism or sexism or homophobia leads to all of those things, still being part of the world that they're building. So it kind of imagines what that would be like, and it centers on how media can be used as a tool of resistance and the nuances of building solidarity across different communities that care about different things. So, I really recommend it.

Alex: I have to watch that movie. Where can we find your show? I know you talked about it a little bit, but just as a closing note: where, what date range, address all that information.

Camila: So it will be from February 10th to April 6th at the Stamp Gallery in the Adele Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland, College Park. And also, just a plug for myself: You can find out more about my projects and everything I'm up to on my Instagram, which is @byunnaturalcauses or please free to reach out to me over email, which is

Alex: Well, thank you so much. This has truly been a pleasure. I need to watch that movie and I can't wait to see your show.

Dec 2020 Washington Socialist cover produced by Tapia-Guilliams

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