Sofía Córdova vs. The Machine

New Takes

Sofía Córdova vs. The Machine

By Kelly Kirkland January 22, 2019

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

“I hope my dumbass Instagram feed is a drop in the good taking up of space bucket.” This sentence is one of many cheeky reflections in YUNG NARCISX (wile out and cut your bangs, no one is looking) (2017), Sofía Córdova’s exploration of social-media performativity, currently on view as part of the group show Reorienting the Imaginaries at SOMArts Cultural Center. A different thread of the same conversation, Córdova’s installation Mira esto que lo vas a extrañar (Look At This Because You’re Going To Miss It) (2018), in Bay Area Now 8, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), considers the notion of mediated spectatorship as it relates to a communal experience of natural disaster. In sharing her community with the world through acts of digital documentation, the artist asks, “Is this a game in which the machine ultimately wins? After all, we’re feeding it our bodies and our imagery.”

Despite its merits as a democratizing platform, the internet has always reflected the hegemonic and hetero-normative tendencies of its participants. Social media in particular has a track record of oiling the machine with the sweat of marginalized communities, from tone-deaf body-positive campaigns and the rampant use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) as a marketing tactic to the subtler complexities of POC communities repackaging and monetizing their own aesthetics. Wary as she is of these dangers, Córdova sees the potential for her and other artists’ online presences to contribute to the “good taking up of space bucket” by embracing alternatives to institutional visibility. For artists who have been historically excluded from institutions, the power to be a subject, even of a selfie, is profound.

YUNG NARCISX was originally commissioned for Open Space, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s online arts-and-culture platform. In this work, scenes from Córdova’s Instagram stories (the rectangular dimensions of the iPhone camera so immediately recognizable), Snapchat-filtered screenshots, and other mundane documentations of personal life are collaged over a loop of Photobooth selfies and semi-abstracted images of nature. Interspersed with the visual ephemera is a body of text that reads like a train of thought typed into a phone’s Notes app: run-on sentences and copy/paste errors in all their raw, emotional, and quippy glory. In both English and Spanish, Córdova expresses her frustration with “the balancing act that is taking up space through self-representation online,” lamenting the cycles of performance while acknowledging her own tendency to get “lost in the likes.” Taking into account Instagram’s increasing potency in the art world, not just as a photo-sharing platform but also as a site of e-commerce and networking, Córdova spotlights the tension between the expectations of the internet and the people of color who seek to claim that space as an act of visibility. Also on view at SOMArts, La vedette de America (Tu boquita with contrapposto) (2012), an eight-minute-long clip of the artist dancing and lip-syncing to Puerto Rican songstress Iris Chacón’s “Tu Boquita,” makes this tension painfully legible. Adorned in a Carmen Miranda-esque fruit hat, Córdova dances and lip-syncs to Chacón’s upbeat tune on repeat, until the audio and the artist’s body simultaneously begin to degrade. Córdova’s choreography and costuming signify the commercialized performance of culture while her white t-shirt and black pants make reference to Bruce Nauman’s uniform, a perceived neutrality that could only be claimed by a white, male subject.1 In both works, Córdova demonstrates what she terms the “grating exhaustion of ‘performing the other’” by negotiating the self-commodifying presences of marginalized bodies in the digital world.

Sofía Córdova. Mira esto que lo vas a extrañar, 2018; installation view, Bay Area Now 8, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Sofía Córdova.

Córdova understands that bringing marginalized bodies into a hegemonic space will always require an element of performance. Mira esto que lo vas a extrañar, at YBCA, features the artist’s video project, dawn chorus ii: el niagara en bicicleta (2018), a documentation of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, alongside various taxidermy sculptures from the artist’s Meltwater Pulse series (2016–present). The installation evokes an uncanny collision between nature and the manmade items built to withstand it: scrap metal, driftwood, and dismembered bird parts give the impression of a freeze-framed explosion, heavy with destruction and stillness, like the eye of a storm. Silver-gilded birds’ feet remain perched upon a piece of driftwood, miraculously resilient even though their bodies have long been blown away. Delicate white dove wings hover, suspended in mid-flight, above a power generator, and a tree branch rests precariously atop a steel barricade. The dimensions of the installation are demarcated by traffic cones, which can be signs of safety or danger, depending which side someone is on. In this instance, the cones separate the installation from the rest of the room, creating a clearly marked yet penetrable boundary. This is a temporarily inhabitable space; the viewer is invited to sit on one of three black boxes in front of a TV monitor screening dawn chorus ii. Sinking into the low seats and forced to look up at the looming screen, one can’t help but feel as if pushed underwater. The artist says: “I wanted to create an island.”

Oscillating between factual and fantastical, Mira esto que lo vas a extrañar employs sound to stunning effect: interviews with family members over a static background of a rattling downpour cut to serene drone footage of sweeping landscapes accompanied by a romantic melody boasting, “Come, traveler, with me and contemplate the divine landscape… / Puerto Rico is the blessed earth, the daughter of sea and sky.” While post-Enlightenment humanity has been conditioned to believe that sight is the brain’s primary mode of knowledge, Córdova is invested in sound as a way of understanding her surroundings. The artist and her partner, Matt Gonzalez Kirkland, perform together as the music duo XUXA SANTAMARIA and score her works with ambient original tracks, traditional melodies, and pop tunes, expanding the notion of taking up space to include not just visibility but audibility. “Sound physically hits your gut and your lungs and your ribcage, and that has an effect in your body that isn’t immediately cerebral,” Córdova says. The visceral impact of sound allows Córdova to interfere with the viewer’s space in an insidious way—gradual, not antagonistic—in order to transmit wavelengths of cultural knowledge.

Sofía Córdova. dawn chorus ii: el niagara en bicicleta, 2018 (film still; video, color, sound, on unique Unistrut mount); 1:45. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Sofía Córdova.

One song remained in my memory long after I left the gallery: The Ghetto Brothers’ chorus, viva Puerto Rico libre (“long live a free Puerto Rico”), just three notes repeating like a mournful processional, had put me in a semi-trance. Even after my physical interaction with Córdova’s piece was over, the tune and its uncertain hope continued to hold space in my head. This is the best “taking up of space bucket” Córdova, or any artist for that matter, could occupy: one that reaches beyond the screens of social media and news coverage to transmit a personal experience, discreetly and directly. Against all odds, Córdova has beat the machine to the punch.

Reorienting the Imaginaries is on view at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco through January 24, 2019.

Bay Area Now 8 is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through March 24, 2019.


  1. As described on the artist’s website:

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