Explore/Engage/Evolve: J. Molina-Garcia, Department of Photography + Film


Following is the full J. Molina-Garcia interview as featured in the Fall 2023 Studio Magazine and part of the Curious Minds interview series.

J. Molina-Garcia is a Salvadoran-American media artist, writer and educator. Molina-Garcia’s work draws on the politics of immigration, philosophies of madness and nonwestern esoteric traditions to critique the violence of the Global North. They build assemblages of fiction out of analog media, digital novelties and written/spoken prose to agitate a queer-trans-of-color resistance, en masse.

Molina-Garcia holds an M.F.A. in Photography+Extended Media from the California Institute of the Arts and graduated with dual degrees in photography and art history from the University of North Texas. They currently work as assistant professor of Photography and Digital Futures at VCUarts.

Molina-Garcia’s work evolves on the emerging edge of human and digital futures by troubling the various points of engagement. They recently completed work focusing on the 2016 terror attack at Pulse, in Orlando, Florida, the target of the deadliest mass shooting perpetrated on American soil at the time.

Molina-Garcia is utilizing AI image generation tools to pre-visualize their current project, a body suit designed to serve as a conduit for a colony of cockroaches to circulate around their body as part of a performance piece exploring the nature of community, agency and camouflage. Although highly conceptual, their practice is intimately involved with questions of culture, embodiment and belonging.

STUDIO: Well, let’s start the work that you presented as part of your Research Rewind talk. Your current projects seem different, but in a similar vein. The full body immersion suit where you’re going to introduce cockroaches through umbilical channels—can you talk about how those two projects are connected? 

MOLINA-GARCIA: They’re completely different projects. They do share the interest in wearables, uniforming and clothing though, right? So, I think there’s a shared interest in certain formal strategies of treating the body in front of the camera. Both projects are really constructing props, wearable props for the camera. So, they’re meant to be worn as specific performance garments in a way. That’s how I’m thinking of them. 

The main difference would, I think, be just that the cyanotype suits and the camouflage patterns that I’m developing and using are part of the work with Pulse, in Orlando, primarily because I’m thinking about how events like mass shootings conscript or involve a type of militant ideology or make visible militant aggression and terrorism. So, the camouflage is meant to involve the victims in these larger wars around ideological backgrounds — the battlegrounds in the U.S. currently manifesting between the south and the north, between blue states and red states. 

In that sense, the Cyanotype serves this very immediate purpose by addressing the kind of partisanship that is involved in American politics right now. The suits themselves, or the garments that are being worn, are also constructed with different materials. You know, the cyanotype suits are soft. They’re made using reclaimed materials, jerseys and knits, and so it’s a lot softer. I think there’s also a big difference in mass and weight and texture that is pretty deliberate. 

With the Cockroach project, I’m conceiving of that garment and that object as participating a lot more directly with certain aesthetics, because there’s a level of kinetic system that’s involved there. The roaches are providing a type of movement and a granular kind of activity, right? Because they’re just crawling on me there’s something that’s a lot more engineered than with the Cyanotypes project. 

J. Molina Garcia, Pulse 49 seance, from the Pulse Temple project, 2023

With the Cockroach project I need to grow the colony. So, I’m going to start collecting and growing roach colonies. And then there’s gonna be a type of umbilical cord that connects me in the suit to them, in the terrarium. So, it’s much more of a kind of a DIY amateur engineering project, because I also need to build a kind of a tube system for the roaches to then navigate on my body. 

In essence, the body wearing the suit becomes the new home for the roaches. I’m sort of rehoming them from the terrarium onto the body. It’s a lot more ecological, it’s a lot more environmental, and it’s a lot more involved with animal studies. Like insect epistemics, you know, insect media, which is the title of a book that I’ve been reading and thinking about, in terms of how we can look at insect life as another ground for divination. 

The two projects also deal with community and kinship. Roaches have a kinship network, you know? They’re almost always in groups. I think where the Cyanotype project is really looking at the sociology of nationalism, the roach project is a lot more involved with the anthropology of the monster.

STUDIO: In a sense I see these embodied performances or broadcasts as being essential to a lot of what you do. What you said earlier about involving victims as combatants—is that a fair characterization of the intent there? How does that connect to the community interaction of the human body and the roach community? Is this something that’s indicating a further transgression or exploration of an embodied experience as a combatant? Or is it something entirely other?

MOLINA-GARCIA: No, I think you’re right. I’m making some of those connections. The victim as combatant. I would just add a very important adjective in that they’re unintentional combatants, right? I think that’s kind of how I refer to them in the Rocks are Magic talk that I gave back in 2021, that these are unintentional soldiers in a war that they didn’t know they were fighting. And I think for anyone who is a trans queer person of color, that might have a lot of currency, or something that elicits an immediate understanding, because I think those of us with marginalized political identities often feel as if we were waging a battle against the state for our own autonomy and sense of integrity and dignity. 

I think where I’m also hitting the military angle is that these projects involve crowds and masses, and they involve mass shootings for a reason. There’s a certain kind of quantity that’s involved in these events that I find to be far, far too close to war. These events resemble far too closely the events of war. So, if you look at the Iraq War, the U.S. military had to adopt a different kind of terminology to refer to the citizens and the bystanders who were being killed by American drones or bombs, right? 

I think a lot of American tragedies could be seen in that light as well. It’s like the war that is happening here and now is really a war around gun rights and progressive values. So, the people who died at Pulse were unintentional combatants in the fight against—or for—the Second Amendment.

To answer the second part of your question, because I think you were asking about the suit and the embodiment that’s happening there. I think that there’s a relationality, or some sort of overlap between them—the victims of mass shootings and the victims of the earth. It’s that climate change and aggressive, American capitalism are also creating victims out of animal and insect life. So, in that way I think there is a kind of politics of revenge with the roach project. How does vengeance play out when you’re dealing with nonhuman actors? 

I think the effects of climate change could be seen as—and I think people throw this concept around—it’s as though the earth is fighting back, you know? So, I’m looking to the roaches as a kind of ready-made army of tiny little soldiers. And that’s also being mindful of the way that the U.S. military industrial complex and different kinds of biological sciences, are using insects to create experiments in neural-cognitive hijacking—like using roaches as test subjects to test equipment that might make them into these tiny robots.

STUDIO: It seems as though these little armies or groups of aligned noncombatant victims that you’re curating are symbolic of a greater battle against climate catastrophe and an intentional degradation of the diversity of all the world’s environments. They’re each little armies, right? The roach colonies and the mass shooting victims? And as such, they seem more connected to an idea of body or self as a collective. I guess I’m trying to pry into that element of your performances. How does that curated, communal body or self communicate to or help shape communities?

MOLINA-GARCIA: Hmm, it would have to be less corporeal. Both of these suits, or the wearables that I’ve conceived so far, give me anonymity. They provide anonymity, rather. And in that sense, I think the suits are trying to sort of go beyond the body. The body is an instrument. The body is being instrumentalized, but it could just be any body. It doesn’t have to be mine, and it doesn’t have to be one single body either, right?  For example, for the Pulse project, the cyanotype that I made, the rotating globe image that I presented at Research Rewind, I end up cloning myself 49 times throughout the immersive 360 environment. And so, what you end up seeing, the final output of that work, is an artificial army of 49 people. The point is not to show one body repeated 49 times, but to show the capacity for the body or the self to be multiple, and maybe that would be very important and significant there, that the self is multiple. When you are dealing with, and thinking about the roach project, the suit might make my body less corporeal. It might even distort. It might treat the anthropocentrism of the body in ways that are a lot more mutated. 

Looking at some of the AI-generated images that I am working with, some of them will sort of erase the neck. Because the AI is conceiving of the suit as mimicry—it starts to mimic the roach body so much, the anatomy of the roach. And in that process you start losing the humanistic corporal reality of it, right? And because the roaches then live on my body, that weight and their augmentation then also kind of distorts the mass and the outline of the body, the perimeter of its shape. That is something that camouflage also is intended to do. Camouflage is supposed to blur the boundary of the body’s perimeter to the outside, to its external environment in the roach project. It’s like the body projects living biomatter as camouflage. That capability of the suit is sort of erasing my lines. Does that make sense?

STUDIO: Yeah, absolutely. it’s provoking other thoughts. I think of The Beekeepers by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The image of the beekeepers with the conical hats with the screen in the front, so their faces are completely obscured. It seems like an inversion—whereas those suits were meant to keep this very structured and cultivated community out, what you are doing is inviting them in. 

You’re mimicking certain aspects of the roach, but who is that contacting? What is the intent there? Is it a warning? Is it an invitation? You know, it’s an interesting set of questions to think on anyway, but I guess that’s not so much a question, it’s just amazing what that act of mimicry prompts. 

MOLINA-GARCIA: Yeah, I think it’s definitely an invitation, and I think that that goes back to the kind of devotion that is involved with art making. A devotional practice has to submit to something and mutually you submit to the art, you are kind of enslaved to the art, but it’s not a position of duress, right? 

I think enslavement would be an improper word because really, it’s more like the parental relationship in the sense that a parent surrenders to their child because they have to, and also because they want to. You love your kid, so you’re gonna devote yourself to their upbringing and their caretaking. So, the beekeeper is sort of an interesting kind of motif or a symbol there, because the beekeeper is also involved in that kind of dynamic of caretaking while also taking part in an extractive activity behind the suit. It’s like you’re wearing this thing because you don’t want to get stung <laugh> because you’re trying to extract something, right? I think that maybe the difference with the roach suit is that I’m not trying to really extract anything out of them. I mean, they’re roaches, it’s not like they can give me honey or milk [laughs].

STUDIO: Your language around devotion is almost spiritual in the way you use it to describe the mentorship relationship between you and your practice. Could you dig into that a little bit more? Has your work always embraced an aspect of devotion, in how you do your research and work?

MOLINA-GARCIA: I think it’s a fairly recent terminology that I’m applying to myself and my work. I was always in love with my projects, so I was always in love with my art, but it sometimes felt like it was an unforgiving companion that also kind of put me in distress and misery, you know, [laughs] because it was so demanding. It’s like the demands that art places on you and that your projects place on you as a technician, as a theorist, as a thinker, is that our art is almost the primary vehicle that we used to move ourselves forward into a future direction or into the future period. 

I think I had to really slow down, assess and be introspective about what it was that my art provided first off, because I think it became—sometimes your art can take too much out of you, you know? I think that that would then be a relationship that needs to be mediated in some way or, or recuperated, because I don’t know that you necessarily want a companion that is vengeful [laughs] or a companion that is exhausting you, that is leaving you so depleted. I mean, every climb that you make will always take something out of you, but ideally, I think you would want that to be a more loving kind of interaction. So, I think maybe what’s happened in my career is that I sort of switched from thinking of my art as a boss that demanded a type of labor out of me. Now it’s becoming more of a spirit that I am responsible for, and one that rewards me also.

STUDIO: That idea of submission is interesting. The idea of submitting to art, it almost sounds like an undertaking of a faith relationship, predicated on the expectation of submission resulting in the imminent destruction and recombination of the self. So that sounds almost scary. It sounds like a place of trepidation. Do you feel it that way? Or does it feel more like just a natural progression for you—an evolution?

MOLINA-GARCIA: No, I think you’re right. I think fear is a big part of faith also, isn’t it? I think we’d have to maybe spend some time thinking about how fear plays out in moments of faith. But I think the fear might come from not knowing whether you’re going to see a return on your investment, right? Am I going to be a follower of this church? Am I gonna join the Christian Church? Do I commit to Islam? You know, is it gonna be worth it? 

Is growing a roach colony going to be worth it? Or am I just going to end up with like 300 roaches in my garage [laughs]? So, I think faith is actually an enormous part of it because, as you know, art is not culturally valued in America. Its worth is not evenly appreciated or applied. There really is no guarantee of a return there. So, I think this happens even after you make the thing, you know, and we’re talking right now very theoretically and conceptually about projects that are still in progress. I haven’t reached a completion date, but even when art reaches a state of polish or presentation… 

I mean, look at the M.F.A. thesis exhibitions. All of these people are making gorgeous, beautiful, challenging work, but they’re freaked out. They’re riddled with anxiety because they don’t know who’s going to write about their work. Who’s gonna see it? Is this going to be enough to get me an academic job or my first solo show? I think artists sometimes are just working so blindly with whatever they can get. And so, faith has to be a part of that, because you have to have faith that your incomplete project will turn into something. But also, you have to have faith that your completed project will at some point give you something. And it may not be monetary, it may not be material, you know? 

I think for young artists that’s a hard pill to swallow because it’s hard to place bets on art, on whether someone’s going to buy it, on whether a curator will see it. But if you tell them, no, you just have faith that it might give you a kind of spiritual reward, you know… who knows if that would be enough or if it might produce a lot of fear in someone.

STUDIO: Have you seen a substantive shift in that understanding or ambition, let’s say in the past few years, with students coming through VCUarts and creating work? Or if not a shift toward faith, toward a similar trust that their effort will somehow be rewarded or recognized?

MOLINA-GARCIA: Yeah, completely, 100%. And, you know, that doesn’t involve any level of self-adulation in making that statement, because I’ve heard it from them directly. They’ve told me. I think I’ve been here long enough that some of those effects can be felt and seen. There is a delay to things. You know, I think we have to be respectful of the time that it might take someone to process a text or a class or a semester’s worth of readings and lectures. 

My first class here in 2019 was called De-Colonizing the Eye and it just introduced art students to a lot of postcolonial theory, but conversations around contemporary issues. There was a student, Martha Glennon, a first-year Kinetic Imaging student when she took that class. I followed her work all through grad school. I mean, I was part of her thesis committee and one of the things that she said that I think I’ll always keep with me, especially if I’m feeling dejected or depressed is, “your seminar essentially turned my brain on for grad school.” It was like the fuel for the engine that really set her on track to explore the ideas that she was thinking about. I hope it gave a type of vocabulary to a lot of those grad students, because they were deeply invested. 

So yeah, I think I’ve also seen the kind of ripple effect that it’s had on grad students. You know, I think a lot of the time grad students come into a program and they start feeling a certain kind of insecurity that maybe they’re not fitting the model in terms of what kind of work they should be making. I get this in Photography + Film also, where the filmmakers sometimes feel a pressure to be making still photographs because they’re in a photo program. I think something that is so critical for them is a kind of transformative pedagogy—to come up with strategies and models that give a student permission and encouragement to let all of that in, you know?

STUDIO: Yeah. There’s an undercurrent of unabashed optimism in your work and the way you talk about your work with students that is fascinating. Could you talk a bit about that? Do you feel it, and does it give you hope as well?

MOLINA-GARCIA: Yes, it totally gives me hope. I think art classes helped me understand the dialectics of hope a lot more authentically—that hope moves through tragedy, that hope is extant in mystery and in negativity, in moments of terror. You know, it’s there. And I think as we develop it in class, it became—hope was a hermeneutic. It had to be a type of analytical or interpretive lens that you had to put on, right? Very deliberately. Otherwise, you might never see it. 

So, in my work there is this sort of thread of negativity, violence, trauma and death. I’m constructing these elaborate kinds of gothic terrors, you know? I think in the past couple years I’m deliberately trying to do that because I’m also conscious of my position as an artist of the South—the American South. You know, this is the home of Edgar Allan Poe, right? So, we can inherit, if we choose, the gothic horror genre. I think what is interesting for me is then to think about weaponizing gothic terrors for the purpose of hope. I think that there is a hopefulness akin to afro pessimism in my work, a sort of a hope for collapse. The roaches, you know, or the seance with the 49 victims of a mass shooting, there’s a sort of a hope that these entities will exert some sort of force that will flatten the environment. But it’s ultimately grounded in the hope we will return to something better.

J. Molina-Garcia, Cancer and abortion mandala, from the Gyneco-Theosophy Institute project, 2023

STUDIO: It’s like opening a portal for a period of transition through ruins and that idea of creating ruins, of leaving ruins behind as points of departure. That’s a great theme in the South. I mean, the way that you take a very specific hope and a contradictory sort of statement out of the Southern gothic and gothic terrors. What else do you find unique or seminal about the South, about being here in Richmond—the heart of the “old South”?

MOLINA-GARCIA: Southern gothic traditions are powerful, Southern eccentricities. Queerness, I think, plays out very differently in the South. It manifests and it grows in ways that are sometimes more polarized in the commonly contextualized East or West Coast environments. I think queer identities in the South are so complex and so strategic and learned. You know, we are so adept at code switching. I think most people might think of the South as a space that enforces a type of closeting or concealment. And some of that is true, if we think about concerns for safety and personal wellbeing. How many trans or queer people are currently hiding or in the closet because gender affirming care is being legislated away in Florida, in Texas and the South in general, you know? 

I think artistic thinking would have to be involved here to kind of nuance this conversation to consider different ways that closeting behavior works. Where are the positives there, right? If we think of it as just a kind of a neutral category, yes, we are familiar with all of the kinds of self-loathing and self-negation that happens when one hides. I think culturally it’s read as a kind of activity of fear or self-censure, you know? But I think there might be more to it than that. There has to be something more to that—to concealing oneself. I mean, if we’re thinking about hyper camouflage as a utilitarian political tool, then the ways that the queer subject hides in the South must also be kind of attuned to a kind of hyper camouflage strategy. You know, we hide because also we’ve then become more influential agents. I have a very low profile at this school. I have a very low profile on social media, you know? I talk a lot and I’m discursive, and some of my projects are out there, but it would be a mistake to assume that I’m closeting myself by not having a bigger public presence. So, to answer your question, I think I’m hugely inspired by the complexities of being queer in the South.

Interview conducted by Micah Jayne. J. Molina-Garcia is a Salvadoran-American media artist, writer and educator. Molina-Garcia’s work draws on the politics of immigration, philosophies of madness and nonwestern esoteric traditions to critique the violence of the Global North. They build assemblages of fiction out of analog media, digital novelties and written/spoken prose to agitate a queer-trans-of-color resistance, en masse.