An interview with artist Virgil Ortiz about his new room, "Sirens: Secret Passkeys & Portals", at House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.
When I visited Virgil Ortiz’ new room Sirens: Secret Passkeys & Portals at the end of October, the first thing I heard someone say was, “This looks like Star Wars!”
And the first thing I thought was, “No, Star Wars looks like this.”
While doing research for his interstellar series, George Lucas had mentorship from Joseph Campbell (archetypes, anyone?), and lifted philosophy, cosmology, and aesthetics from indigenous tribes of the Southwest. Princess Leia’s hairstyle, for example: her iconic buns are traditionally Hopi. The tale of cosmic twins who liberate their people—Diné in origin. Even Jawanese (Utinni!) is based on Zulu, an ethnic group and language indigenous to Southern Africa. And, as Star Wars infiltrated the collective unconsciousness and influenced almost all modern sci-fi and fantasy, so did the indigenous experience, in much the same way that many oppressed groups survive under imperial rule—in secret.
I myself saw my Native experience first in stories like Star Wars—isolated youths raised ignorant of their origins under hands-off imperial rule eventually revolt once they learn the truth, liberating themselves and others. Another common trope in popular fantasy and sci-fi is that of conflict over land and natural resources, fought between empire and robed rebel defenders—oh, except it’s on a desert planet in a galaxy far, far away (i.e., Dune, Avatar, Dinotopia, which is technically on Earth, but you get the idea).
That this story and the hero archetype interact so often is what first endears many of us to the Rebel cause. But are we not beset by imperial forces on our own desert homeworld? What about the rebels shaping our future in the here and now? And how to stay grounded in an increasingly oppressive and disruptive empire?
For Virgil Ortiz, the answer lies in generations-old artistic practice—the clay pottery tradition of Cochiti Pueblo.
“I stay grounded knowing that I am continuing a tradition handed down from generations. Utilizing these age-old methods and materials connects me to our ancestors and provides therapy, prayer, and critical teachings…Tying together the past, present and the future has been instilled in me for as long as I can remember. I feel that none of it is my talent; it’s way bigger than me and I am just a bead in a necklace.”
Nick Estes, Assistant Professor of American Studies at UNM, writes in Our History is the Future: Standing Rock vs. the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance: “A tradition is usually defined as a static or unchanging practice. This view often suggests that Indigenous culture or tradition doesn’t change over time—that indigenous people are trapped in the past and thus have no future. But as colonialism changes throughout time, so does resistance to it. By drawing upon earlier struggles and incorporating elements of them into their own experience, each generation continues to build dynamic and vital traditions of resistance.”
Virgil Ortiz’ Recon Watchmen are the perfect example of how indigenous traditions continue to express themselves, how past and future resistance are being shaped in the present.
“All my work is based on educating globally about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt… For over two decades, I’ve incorporated this subject matter into my work and art mediums…It is an awakening of the truth and education of our history and actual events; reviving social commentary in my traditional clay works — a recording of a timeline of past and current events,” says Ortiz. “This vital part of our history has been swept under the carpet, not taught in schools, and omitted from textbooks.”
It’s true—most of the existing scholarship and history of the Pueblo Revolt is painfully diluted and/or whitewashed, if not omitted entirely. But the Revolt 1680/2180 narrative at once recounts an accurate history of the 1680 Revolt, and encourages our collective imagination toward the future of indigenous resistance.
The Recon Watchmen are that future. Their mission: watching over the past, present, and future of the Pueblo peoples in New Mexico.
“The Watchmen realize that challenges and persecution will continue, so preserving and protecting their clay, culture, language, and traditions from extinction is imperative.”
The Revolt 1680/2180 narrative is Made in Native America. And upon entering the Sirens’ automaton laboratory, we are transported to a place where past and future guardians of this land engage contemporary imaginations and beyond.
“The Sirens share primordial knowledge with the Recon Watchmen, who are stationed around Earth’s realm, surveying for any advances of the invaders. Responding to a forewarning alarm and distress signal from the Recon Watchmen, the Sirens speed up their engineering of Chargers and Ha’pons (war shields) to aid the oncoming strike against the Earth and Pueblo lands. The Chargers are highly coveted and protected, hiding in plain sight.”
In this room, the mechanisms of defense and creation are at our fingertips, as if we were in the position of the Sirens themselves, and called to aid the Watchmen’s cause. Indeed, the lab features a larger-than-life-size automaton head, emblazoned in neon, watches back from a corner. A column showcases the creation of a Watchmen galea—the complex balance of human and automaton, the technological and the organic. We see in three dimensions how the mind and the future are intertwined and interdependent, especially when it comes to survival.
Space and place both affect not only our physical state, but our mental and emotional states as well. Therefore, how we conceive of the future, how we prepare for it, and how we build it, are somewhat dependent on the physical/mental/emotional spaces we are or have been in. Knowing our history is crucial for knowing how to engage the future.
Behind the column, a triptych of screens show the Recon Watchmen on patrol. “In this scene, the Watchmen—led by their matriarch dressed all in white—conduct covert surveillance of Earth to detect any movements of the Castilian Army encroaching the Pueblo lands. Donning helmets adorned with Stargate crests, the Recon Watchmen, armed with impenetrable Ha'pons (war shields), start sealing off pathways and portals and storm the Castilian settlements. The enemy is besieged and driven out. They quickly gather the survivors and search for any remaining clay artifacts from the battlefields.”
As we observe their movements onscreen, we are in the position of the Sirens ourselves: in a landscape devoid of water, the Recon Watchmen’s coordinated advances suggest not only life, but life that is protected, thriving, and resisting the forces that work to end it. The Matriarch appears briefly, surrounded by Guardians—a beacon of hope in Badlands.
“I hope the room will inspire visitors to acknowledge and learn about our history on the verge of extinction,” says Ortiz. “A reminder of the atrocities Pueblo people have survived and persevered through, and prayer not to let it happen again. Art saves lives.”
When we interact with the room, we in turn become potential Sirens. Our role: to Aid. to Remember. To Imagine and Create. As we learn in the laboratory, the processes of deconstruction, exposition, and creation—revolution—occur where we think, where we imagine, where we dream. Perhaps our most revolutionary act—truly, the future of fantasy, sci-fi, culture, and tradition alike—is the shaping of our collective consciousness.