Leah Gallant (MAVCS 2020)
is the arts editor at
F Newsmagazine. Like
Brad Pitt, she is mostly
made of water.
Images by Ana García Jácome
Recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) graduate,
Ana García Jácome’s (MA Visual and Critical Studies 2020) work as an artist, writer, and researcher ranges across installation, video, and scholarship. Her thesis project, “The [ ] History of Disability in Mexico,” draws on photographic, periodical, and medical archives to look at the emergence of a discourse around disability in Mexico. From this project came the material for her visual project, selections from which are published here. “We Protest Against Polio” is a set of images that responds to an unrealized exhibition by a doctor who claimed to have discovered the cure for polio. We talked about the connections between her recent work and the mainstream media’s responses to COVID-19, the violence of medical images of people with disabilities, and how we might use knowledge of past pandemics to better relate to the present.
Leah Gallant: Can you tell me a bit about your research process for your thesis and for this project, “We Protest Against Polio”?
Ana García Jácome: The first archive I visited was the archive of the Ministry of Health in Mexico City, which is located in downtown Mexico City, in a colonial building. It holds records from the days of the Spanish colony in the Mexican territories, so the archive is really big. I wasn't really interested in an exact period of time, I was more interested in just finding everything I could about disability, so my search was guided by key words relating to disability.
‘Disability’ is a really recent word, at least in Mexico, where its translation, discapacidad, started to be used in the 90’s. Since there was nothing at all about it before those years, I had to look for other words that were used for disability before the 90's, and that was what guided my research. So I just focused on one of the collections of these archives, from the Secretariat of Health, and that was the specific collection that I spent more time with.
Poliorzima PX-24, Reynaldo Martínez, 1959.
LG: Was there anything particularly surprising that you found, or anything surprising about the sorts of information that were present or absent?
AGJ: What surprised me about all the stuff that I found there was that there are a lot of really random documents. The archive is mainly a bureaucratic archive, so a lot of the stuff is just letters from one department to another asking for permission for something, or sending proposals for programs, or letters from citizens to the secretary to ask for funding. There were also a lot of documents from seminars and conferences on different public health issues, so the archive doesn't have a great order. The archiving conditions are really messy, and the content is basically just ordered by dates and departments, but it’s very diverse within those categories.
One of the papers that surprised me most was a letter from a doctor asking for funding to make an exhibition of his work, which was actually where this project came from. He claimed he had found a cure for polio, so he wanted the Ministry of Health to fund an exhibition of his research, his process, and his treatment to cure polio. So he was sending letters and documentation about his work, as well as other letters that were supposedly proof of his contacts in other institutions in the world. But the funny thing is that most of those documents were totally useless as proof of any scientific competence, because they were things like receipts of his subscriptions to a magazine, or someone in a public library in France saying, ‘Thank you for sending your thesis, we'll include it in our collection.’ It was all really random stuff that has nothing to do with proving that his treatment worked, or that his research had any scientific validity. In the end, they denied funding for the exhibition because the drug that he used wasn’t registered, so it was kind of suspicious.
Looking at that story, I started questioning the validity of the documents that institutional archives hold. It was surprising to me that an institutional archive, such as that of the Ministry of Health, had collected those papers. So the images from the project here are me imagining how the exhibition would have looked if it had happened. I used some images from that archive, from Archivo Casasola, a photographic archive in Mexico City that covers almost all of the 20th century, and from the archive of the Ministry of Public Health, as well as from periodicals and online archives.
It's all fake, in a way, because I am not a doctor, and I don't know if the treatment would have worked, but from my own research, I can tell that it was total bullshit. To this day, polio cannot be cured. There's a vaccine, but the vaccine is not a cure. That was another thing that I was interested in exploring with that project, this familiar desire for a cure every time a disease spreads.
Physician administering the vaccine against polio in a social security clinic, 1959, Mexico, Casasola Archive.
LG: That resonates with so much that’s happening now, like the hyping of hydroxychloroquine. How did your work on this project relate to how you understand what’s happening now?
AGJ: That story definitely influenced the way I see the current COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic began, it totally changed my ideas around it, because I saw again how fear of a new disease is so real, and I could experience the actual consequences of not having a vaccine or a specific treatment for something. At first I thought that people shouldn’t have been so afraid, but now I’m like, “Ok, I can see the scope of this.” But also, how we talk about that fear and its consequences influences how we experience and relate to all diseases, or to sickness and disability, because in the end, my work is about disability.
LG: Are there particular similarities and differences that you see between responses to the current pandemic and responses to previous illnesses?
AGJ: One similarity is the collective panic that always happens. What I think my work can contribute is to make us a little more aware that it always happens, and that the ways in which it was approached in the past might not be the best ones. We have a chance now to make it different this time, and by that I mean really being aware of how representation has impacted the way we relate to disability and disease. If we are not careful with how we have conversations about it, the only thing that will happen is that we will keep stigmatizing disability and disease in a way that only contributes to the oppression of those identities. So I think that by bringing images from the polio pandemic in Mexico into the present, we can make these connections and realize that it’s not the first time we’ve dealt with this, and that we have a chance to use the experiences of the past to take a better approach in the present.
“It’s so normal to only see disability in the medical field that people aren’t aware that we’re real people with feelings.”
LG: I’m wondering if you could talk more about the emotional tenor of the archival materials you encountered — of, for example, disability as a medicalized category, as a problem to be solved, or as a part of patronizing stories about overcoming the odds. As for your own work, I think any scholarly project is ostensibly founded in objectivity and the distance of research, but that often emotional veils, like optimism, cynicism, or rage, can permeate a work. I’m curious about the emotional tenor of the archival material you were looking at, but also your own as you were researching this and making this work?
AGJ: I can definitely see how those two things are connected. I constantly think about it, because in my work they overlap so much that it’s really hard to separate them, which ends up being overwhelming. My gaze towards the images is very based on my own experience, so of course I see how disability is only present in these medicalized images. I think that nowadays, it’s becoming a little different, but when I was growing up, it was really, really rare to see disability outside of medical images, so every time I needed to look for representations of myself, the only place where I found them was in the medical field. At the same time, I had the experience of being very objectified by the medical institution and by its practitioners, so I was aware of the kind of violence the production of those images entails. But I think that a lot of people might not be aware of that, because they haven’t had that experience, and it’s so normal to only see disability in the medical field that people aren't aware that we’re real people with feelings. So I think also that by collecting these images and putting them in a different setting, by presenting them in the context of this art project, it also forces people to face those representations, and to question how they situate them in their understanding of disability.
The process of writing my thesis was very much the same, there was always this constant need to find more representations and to situate myself in an identity that most people don’t really know anything about. I needed that information, and it always involved moving back and forth between personal experience or personal needs and academic knowledge.
Handicapped child with crutches, 1955, Mexico,
LG: Your work ranges through many mediums and approaches. Is there something in particular about an interdisciplinary approach — pardon the SAIC buzzword — that you find useful to thinking about disability or making work about disability?
AGJ: I think that interdisciplinarity comes from my background. I did a BFA as an undergraduate, and since I was a kid I’ve always been very crafty. A lot of my work is also guided by the materials I have access to or that I can afford, and much of my work is made with really cheap supplies, like xerox, print, and recycled materials. Since I began to focus on disability, I also incorporated research as a big part of my practice, so it became not only about my materials, but more about the ideas and research behind it. Now that I’m so into archives, incorporating all that material as well is pushing me to think about different ways to bring everything together.
LG: What points did this project show you in how we might relate to the past? Or, can you expand on how you’re reading scholar Ariella Azoulay, who you mention in your Visual and Critical Studies Symposium video work, on the possibilities of the archive?
AGJ: The first time that I read Azoulay was maybe four or five years ago, when I wasn’t close to archives at all, and I think that was what sparked my interest in them. The first time I thought about them in relationship to my work was when I was making a documentary about a family story relating to disability, and the archive that I was using back then was my family’s, things like the family album and family films. I was thinking very locally about the potential story about my family member, who was my aunt, so I was thinking about how I felt that my aunt’s story was being left out of the family history. I wanted to know more about her and recuperate her story, in a way. What I was thinking about potential history in relation to that was how knowing about her from an earlier age, I would have had a different awareness of disability and myself, and all my family members would have had a different awareness of disability in general. I think that's basically how I still think of that concept of potential history: How would knowing how things happened in the past influence our awareness of the present? How would we be different by knowing some things happened a certain way?
Sometimes I think the mainstream coverage of coronavirus and how it relates to the 1917 Spanish Flu isn’t very encouraging, I feel, because it’s things like, “This happened in the past, but it was worse because they didn’t have electricity.” I don’t think those approaches are helpful to understand our relationship to the virus and to having to take care of ourselves collectively during this time. To gain something from those stories, rather than comparing our situation to theirs in a shallow way, we really need to go deeper. We need to look at the conditions in which things happened and the strategies of survival that people learned. f