Rebeca Mendéz: design is a social force for change


Hard to believe, but I’ve now known Rebeca for nearly twenty years. Back in 1998 we asked her to design a cover for Plazm magazine. That was issue #19. We printed a series of postcards with her work to promote the issue, and she contributed a piece to the 1999 Plazm on Video VHS magazine. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her in advance of her upcoming participation at Bend Design.

Méndez is an artist, designer, and professor at UCLA, Design Media Arts, where she is director of the CounterForce Lab, a research and fieldwork studio dedicated to using art and design to develop creative collaborations, research, and projects around the social and ecological impacts of anthropocene climate change. Her research and practice investigates design and media art in public space, critical approaches to public identities and landscape, and artistic projects based on field investigation methods. Méndez’s art is driven by her interest in perception and embodied experience. This year Rebeca was awarded the AIGA medal and inducted into the One Club Hall of Fame.

Joshua Berger: In a recent interview—after you were awarded the AIGA medal—you talked about your drive to become a being with knowledge, not just technique. Can you tell me more about how you balance those two things in your own work, and, as a design and media arts professor at UCLA, how does this philosophy inform your teaching?

Rebeca Méndez: I believe that when one is curious about more than one’s own discipline and expertise, one opens up to new ways of thinking, to other ways of seeing the world. This broader understanding is the seed of knowledge, and it is in this space that meaning is formed. In a research university like UCLA, one has great opportunities to expand on one’s area of expertise. As faculty, you are constantly in committees with members of all different fields, from astrophysics to comparative literature. Your students are sometimes doing a major in Design Media Arts, and a minor in Linguistics, Psychology or Digital Humanities, so the questions, discussions and their projects are many times richer and have more complexity. It is less ‘specialized’ in a given area of a discipline, which is narrow and deep, and more ‘encompassing,’ able to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible. I still believe in the idea of the renaissance woman or man. No wonder I ended up at UCLA, Design Media Arts which bridges art, design, and science. In my work, when possible, I like collaborating with people from other disciplines, which is not always easy, but for CircumSolar, I was able to collaborate with an ornithologist and a glaciologist from Iceland, and at UCLA, for my Counterforce Lab, a center for art, design and environment, I’ve been able to collaborate with the Environmental Humanities and the Institute of Environment and Sustainability.

CircumSolar, Migration 1, 2013. Single-channel video installation. 26:20 minutes. Installation view: Glow, Santa Monica.

Your work explores perception of the natural world mediated through technology. You travel to these very remote places yet also live and work in a one of the largest cities on the continent. I’m interested in these dichotomies. Where to they come from? I’m also interested in the work that you create, bringing back these documentations, a sort of report back, for consumption in the urban environment by people who likely would never be in such a remote location. Do you see yourself as a geographer in a way? A conduit?

I was born and raised in Mexico City and most of our summers were spent in the midst of the jungles of Chiapas, Yucatan and Quintana Roo in search of obscure Mayan archeological sites, which was my father’s passion. What I see in common in both environments is an apparent randomness and chaos, hypercomplexity, multiplicity, and constant change — and that is what I feel is ‘home.’ When I travel to the high arctic, I am attracted to the vast, minimal abstract spaces and their silence. When you are in the jungle, sometimes you can only see a couple of meters ahead, in the arctic, you may see kilometers ahead. So I explore the numbing phenomenon of light and void, which places us on the edge of amorphous infinites. Some places, like the arctic tundra, where I spend long periods of time, I experience the sensation of being surrounded only by vast horizons in a complete surrender to spatial infinity. The mind and the body are calm and quiet in this emptiness.

I have described myself as a ‘documentarian’ and my interest in cartography can definitely push me to a ‘geographer.’ But, what I have found is that my kind of practice can be described as ‘artistic fieldwork,’ which borrows methods from various disciplines — from sociology, geography, design, science fiction writing, and merges the apparent objectivity of scientific research with a subjective, flexible approach, drawing on multiple methodologies and discourses. I engage in explorations surveying the earth, walking, investigating things in the field, and my projects often take the form of unusual archives, presenting the results of my research in multiple forms, in films, photographs, installations, animations, drawings, books, and text.

So, when I create immersive art installations my intention is to transport the viewer to places I have felt a powerful phenomenological experience and wish for them to have an embodied experience of the force, rhythms, and cycles of the natural world.

At Any Given Moment, Fall, 2009. Video art installation consisting of video projection, sound and lava rocks and gravel. Sound by Drew Schnurr. Image: Installation view at the Beall Center for Art and Technology, UCI, Irvine, California. Size: 159 × 120 inches ( 403.8 × 304.8 cm). Exhibition History: Beall Center for Art and Technology (Jan 8–March 14, 2009).

Many humans, particularly in industrial society, have become dislocated from nature. The mediated experience is different of course, than being in the actual environment. How does bringing nature to people mediated by technology connect them to nature?

Sadly, most people are indeed dislocated from nature. I remember asking my undergraduate students to research the word ‘nature’ by having a direct experience. Several students were embarrassed to find that their initial research shared the first images found when googling the word ‘nature’ revealing that they had not even gone to the Mildred E. Botanical Gardens at UCLA!

No media will ever replace the experience of being in direct contact with nature, but one can create a powerful immersive sensory experience with digital media alone, or in combination with natural elements.

Here is where I love quoting Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, he said: “We are all transistors, in the literal sense. People always think they are in the world, but they never realize that they are the world.” As explained by cultural theorist Sanford Kwinter, what Stockhausen means is that there are no phenomena in the natural world that do not manifest themselves as vibratory or rhythmic phenomena. Those vibrations attack us; they modulate us and, in the end, become us.

In my At Any Given Moment, series of video artworks, I explore nature as vibratory phenomena. By focusing on the repetitive rhythms, tight cropping, and large-scale image the work’s particular organizational logic assemble a more compact environment, one that the body can engage with physically. The cross-rhythmic tensions between simple elements modulated by variable speed and variable light conditions — create visual difference and reveal the patterns that one simple element produces through relationships and complex organization. The large-scale projection with its engulfing force and meditative recurring cycles, enter in relation with our own human rhythms, resulting in a seemingly mutual modulation.

At Any Given Moment, Fall, 2009. Video art installation consisting of video projection, sound and lava rocks and gravel. 

Do you have opinions on VR? Have you had the opportunity to do any experiments with this technology?

I have not experimented in my work, but I am very excited about the comeback of VR. My first experience with VR was with Char Davies’ project Osmose, 1995, “an immersive interactive virtual reality environment installation with 3D computer graphics and interactive 3D sound, a head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance. There are a dozen world-spaces in Osmose, most based on metaphorical aspects of nature. These include Clearing, Forest, Tree, Leaf, Cloud, Pond, Subterranean Earth, and Abyss.”

As an advanced diver, I remember the experience of Osmose to be close to my experience diving at 80 feet under the sea. The worlds she created were beautiful, poetic, and transported me to an unknown reality with powerful sensation. I understood then the potential power of VR. Then, for 20 years, it went into a latent stage, perhaps waiting for the computer power to get stronger.

While Osmose created a natural world, not unlike our own, I see artists experimenting with a chaotic bricolage of realities responding to the hypercomplex world we live in. Eric Fanghanel, a UCLA, Design Media Arts graduate student, in his work Nothing (2017), he juxtaposes multiple environments — the natural, the built, and the video game.

Eric describes his work below:

Nothing was a one person experience, an interaction with an alien subjectivity catalyzed through ritual, play, sculpture, VR and live performance. Borrowing from pop culture, alchemy, and the game of Go, Nothing casts audience members as the semiotic/interpretative element in a neural network.

An immersive environment populated with sculptural pieces.
A non-competitive board game played alongside an AI; a motor.
A time-traveling non-human virtual space.
A live band.

With the computing power of today, the environments that are being created by some of my students are fascinating.

I am living in an area that was evacuated a couple weeks ago, not under evacuation alert any longer, but a 25,000 acre fire, now 60% contained, burns nine miles away. There’s a lot of smoke. I wear a mask when I go outside because of the poor air quality. It’s hard to try to continue living and working as if everything is normal. Everything is not normal.


I am fortunate though. As we talk, Houston is just beginning what will surely be a long recovery from Hurricane Harvey — the third “500-year” hurricane in three years. A week later, Irma, the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, is bearing down on Florida with 180 mile per hour winds — it’s final toll of destruction still to be told. Across the North American West, hundreds of record-breaking fires burn — over a million acres in British Columbia alone. I once heard you ask a rhetorical question along the lines of: How do we design our way out of this mess humanity has created? What do you think? Where do we go from here?

These ideas are particularly important to me now, at a time in my career and in our history when giving back to the community and care for the planet seems especially urgent.

We are well into the anthropocene era, a time when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, and there is no doubt that human activity has thrown the planet out of balance. I have thought hard on how can design and art can convey the urgency of the matter, and it is through changing the conversation about what we value. “Our economic model has declared war on life on Earth,” said journalist Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs.The Climate. I find her message to be one of the most clear voices on the matter. Her book inspired me to create the UCLA CounterForce Lab. CounterForce Lab—a research and fieldwork studio based in the Design Media Arts department at UCLA—is dedicated to using art and design to develop creative collaborations, new fields of study, and methods to research. We create and execute projects that investigate the social and ecological concerns of what some researchers are calling the anthropocene era, a time when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. This academic year, the Lab’s focus is on human migration, which is a common strategy for coping with and adapting to environmental hardship, stress, and risks.

The title of your talk is “Design as a social force for change” — what understanding allows us to design for a better future?

The current discourse around “sustainist design,” a concept proposed by the cultural theorist Michiel Schwarz, in which sharing, localism, connectedness, and proportionality are creating a new agenda for social design. In this model, design is judged not only for its form and function, but also for its social and environmental impact.

What role do you think CounterForce Lab plays for UCLA design students? What might be stated in the CounterForce Lab manifesto?

From the moment that design began to emerge as a discipline in the 1920s it was closely associated with an idealistic and utopian vision. Good design could contribute to a better society. But twentieth-century modernism also engendered in design a deep concept of ‘professionalism’ — a neutral and dispassionate objectivity — which has primarily manifested as a non-critical service-to-industry attitude, and has proven inadequate in a world that is crying for concern, involvement, accountability, and commitment. Certainly, design can affect social and political change, but the design student has to move beyond aesthetic and technical knowledge.

The design student must be aware that the core of her future profession is in instilling meaningful structure in the chaos of possible meanings and references in our vast information culture.

They have the opportunity to ask ‘what matters?’ for a sustainable future.

It is my hope that the CounterForce Lab ignites in the students the understanding that designers can and must be actively involved in who gets to say what, to whom, and how.

One of my senior courses focused on coming up with a manifesto for the collaborative lab. Together we came up with this, but it’s still needing integration to the description above.

CounterForce is Participation

We at CounterForce are artists and designers. We believe that these practices have the ability to create meaningful change. We take seriously the issue we with to tackle. To do so, we must seek to understand the complex layers and dynamic of a state of affairs: from the individual to the geopolitical; from a macro-system to a molecular one; from revisiting history to a speculation of the future. Getting a complete and flawless picture is fantasy.

However, we believe that deep understanding is far too rare of a commodity. In this endeavor, we seek partnerships, if not mentoring, from scientific, political and industrial realms in order to fill our gaps of knowledge. Furthermore, we believe that strong ties to individuals in small communities (through fieldwork) are essential: It takes a seasoned local to truly understand a place.

We believe that meaningful change takes a movement. Yet, we believe that despite their unquestionable flaws, our institutions are capable of substantive reform and should not be discarded. Thus, we shall endeavor to share our understanding of issues as means to enable greater participation in the democratic process. We believe that environmental justice is humanity’s most urgent challenge. It shall therefore be our first order of business.

We understand our strengths and limitations as designers.
We seek to understand before we declare.
We value an engaged public more than we do an individual gesture.

The first projects the students created, as well as their proposals for the graphic identity of the lab can be found here.

Mendéz sketchbook pages for CircumSolar

Your work deals with perception and embodied experience. Do you create with specific intentions for audience experience, or is it about creating an experience that unlocks something inside the viewer? What do you learn from watching the audience? Can you share any examples when you’ve been surprised by audience perception of something you created?

As an artist I am interested in creating the conditions for a reflective experience, but I am not interested in directing them in a didactic manner.

I learn so much from observing the viewer of my work. An example is with At Any Given Moment, Fall 1 with Volcanic Rock, 2010, which is an immersive space comprised of a 16mm film, screened as single-channel video projected at architectural scale (18 x 22 feet), with visceral and reverberating sound, and a 22 x 19 feet field of 3 tons of volcanic rock, gravel and sand. When exhibited at the Williamson Gallery, I noticed that adults remained outside of the lava field, but children entered with joy and a sense of exploration, which is much more how I want my future work to be. The children taught me the joy of having a physical engagement with the work. I also learned from the director of the exhibition that people would bring their lunches into the gallery and spent 30 minutes to an hour experiencing the work. My installation had some of the effects being in nature conveys — a place for contemplation, meditation and pleasure. That made me so happy.

Much of your work feels organic, yet very intentional. I’m curious what role principles of random play in your work?

I like working with ideas of mass, energy, and the physical forces of nature, like gravity and magnetism. The lava field in Fall 1, only became acceptable to me when, after 12 hours trying to rationally design the field, in tears I started throwing the rocks with all my force onto the field…suddenly the space had the presence of the force of gravity. So, randomness, still responds to the basic physical forces, but in my case, I needed to work with my body and not just with my mind.

That’s a great story.

Random play and chance are an important part of my series of video works called Never Happened Again and Nothing Further Happens.

Still from Nothing Further Happens, 2011; 16mm film, screened as single-channel video projected at architectural scale, color, sound by Ben Frost; continuous loop, 9:38 minutes.

Have you thought about what you might like to visit in Central Oregon when you are here for Bend Design?

I’d love to stay there for a year and just be with and feel the force of nature. I am starved of nature and I’m like a lone wolf howling for connection to the earth.

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